Date of Award

May 2019

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Kalman Applbaum

Committee Members

Erica Bornstein, Jane Collins, Ingrid Jordt, Thomas Malaby


Adulthood, American studies, Cultural anthropology, Sociology, Underemployment, Work


This dissertation takes as its starting point the problem of underemployment among young adults in the post-recession United States. Recent studies have shown that the number of college-educated Americans employed in positions not requiring a degree has reached historic highs. Such analyses are limited, however, in that they do not capture the lived effects of such trends—how underemployment insinuates itself into a person's worldview and identity. This ethnographic study delves into the intimate correlates of macroeconomic change by investigating the impact of underemployment on notions of adulthood among recent college graduates working in the Minneapolis-St. Paul restaurant industry. For the young people that I interviewed and worked alongside for a year, a central question in their lives appeared to be, how does one become an adult without the stable pay and prestige that has defined legitimate, middle class adulthood for prior generations?

My study found that, for many white collar hopefuls, the beginnings of their careers were defined by a period of precarious employment—a "waiting room," as some called it—for wealth, self-actualization, and adulthood itself. For those workers without means to subsidize their wages during this period, restaurant work provided an essential income stream and bulwark against economic instability. This period of underemployment ultimately fostered a "waiting room" subjectivity, a stultifying, yet creative state in which workers dealt with the practical problem of becoming adults despite deficits in prestige and income. Their tactics were crystallized in the internet meme "adulting" and ranged from traditional consumer activities such as purchasing a bed frame to communalist householding arrangements. Overall, I argue that their waiting room world constitutes one refraction of an emerging generational subject, haunted by the norms of the twentieth century but birthed into an era where those norms have collapsed into a disordered state of adulthood, fertile with risk and possibility.