Nearly Half of Young Adults Believe the American Dream is Dead

President Obama once told historian Doris Kearns Goodwin that he has “no desire to be one of those presidents who are just on the list – you see their pictures lined up on the wall.” Instead, he argued, he really wanted to be a “president who makes a difference.”

Almost no one will argue that President Obama achieved his goal. A lot has certainly changed in the seven years he has taken up residence in the White House. The question is whether the differences or good or bad, whether the change was for good or ill.

That’s certainly up for debate depending on your political viewpoint. Where some see health care coverage gains, others see the destabilization of the health care system and the sharp increase in health spending. Where some see an end to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, others see new entanglements in Syria and Iraq, and a failed stated in Libya. Where some see lower unemployment rates, others see stagnating wages, lower economic growth, and a diminished workforce participation rate.

But perhaps most troublingly, where some continue to see a land of opportunity, others see the end of the American Dream.

According to the results of a new poll from Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, nearly half of those ages 18 through 29 believe the American Dream is dead. In what is surely a projection of how they see their economic futures, 48 percent of those who were asked, “For you personally, is the American Dream alive or dead?” responded “dead.” Forty-nine percent said it was alive.

“It is disturbing that about half of the largest generation in America doesn’t believe the American dream is there for them personally,” John Della Volpe told Bloomberg. “That frustration, I think, is tied into a government they don’t trust and they don’t think is working for them.”

They’re largely right. Despite strongly courting young adults in each of his presidential runs, Obama did little to advance the interests of young voters. College affordability was little more than a talking point, youth unemployment received no mention, entrepreneurship and small business issues were nonexistent, and entitlement obligations have grown increasingly unsustainable.

The result is unsurprising: The fortunes of young adults continue to go down, even as those of older generations improve. As Tim Mak reported for POLITICO in 2011:

The wealth gap between younger and older Americans has widened to its largest ever, exacerbated by the slow economic recovery that has hit young Americans disproportionately hard, a new study shows.

With high youth unemployment and mounting student debt, the typical U.S. household headed by a person 65 years of age or older is 47 times wealthier than that of a household headed by someone under 35, according to a new Pew Research study.

The median net worth of households headed by someone 65 years or older was $170,494, up 42 percent from 1984. Meanwhile, households headed by someone 35 or younger had a median net worth of $3,662, down 68 percent from that same year.

Although 2011 was a lifetime ago in economic terms, the trend remains. New research suggests that older generations have seen their income and net wealth continue to increase vis-à-vis previous generations, whereas each subsequent generational cohort is experiencing the opposite: their incomes and wealth grow are increasingly diminished.

Surely, successively poorer generations is not what anyone had in mind for the American Dream. So is it really that hard to believe that the dream is dead for almost half of young adults? After all, it’s hard to believe that you’re going to be better off than your parents, when you’re thirty and still living under your parents’ roof.

Something must be done to arrest the erosion of wellbeing. Increasing spending on the entitlement state, which comes either at the expense of investments in infrastructure, education, and other things that benefit younger generations, or at the cost of higher taxes, makes absolutely no sense. There is simply no public policy justification for spending 4 in 10 dollars on the elderly (a figure that has quadrupled over the last 50 years) when only 1 in 10 dollars goes to children.

If we want young adults to have faith, we have to give them something to have faith in.


Photo credit: SEIU. Some rights reserved.