Gen-Y Optimism Prevails, But Should It?

Is their eternal optimism why Gen-Y is not on the barricades?

Posted Sep 16, 2011

Given the current turmoil in the country--from rising poverty rates to enduring unemployment to political polarization, we wondered how the latest generation was feeling about their futures. In a set of wide-ranging interviews, we asked about 100 23-year-olds what the American Dream meant to them, and if they thought it was still attainable. 

"What does the American Dream mean to me?" Jose said, "Just being able to get a job and keep going higher and higher ... like being nothing and becoming something." 

"I think it's being able to be self-sufficient and be happy and not really have to worry about money or where you're going to get your next meal," said Jenna.

"Self-made, being self-made," said Maggie. 

"Having a nice house, having a nice car, being happy with where you are in life, and knowing that you got yourself there," Brian said. 

Versions of their answers were repeated again and again. Happiness, success, security-- that seems to sum up the American Dream for this generation. And yet, two of three of those conditions float further out of reach for many with each passing day of this deep recession. 

A few grim statistics:

  • Nearly half of the 20-somethings living at home with their parents would be categorized as in poverty if they weren't counted as part of their parents' household. That means they're making about $11,000 a year or less. 
  • The unemployment rate for those with a bachelor's degree is 4.5%--the highest in decades for this group. For those with just a high school degree, the unemployment rate is more than double that.
  • The median incomes of those 15-24 declined the most of all age groups since 2007. Their income declined a whopping 15% after adjusting for inflation between 2007 and 2010.  

I could go on.... The situation is grim here in the United States. It's a tinder box elsewhere in the world. The Middle East, Paris, London, Spain-- all have seen young adults take to the street in riots. So I was mildly surprised when we got to the follow-up question: What do you think about the fact that yours may be the first generation to not do better than your parents?  

"I don't think that's true," Melanie said flatly. "I think it depends who you are. Maybe overall it will be, but I don't think I will, personally, just 'cause I have good work ethic."

"I don't like that," said Heather, rather offended at the question. "I don't really agree with it.  I think that we'll still be able to be successful and that this may be a temporary dip in our road, but I think long term, you know, we've seen the Great Depression, we've seen times of economic struggle, I don't think it means we're doomed forever."

"I think it's just kind of like pessimistic," Brian replied. "I feel like every generation is always like, you know, there's something wrong with this generation." 

Others, of course, acknowledge that they might be downwardly mobile. Jose was quick to admit that "We’re definitely pretty bad. I mean our generation’s being affected hugely…No one can have prosperity, you know, just better themselves. Like, everyone’s stuck where they are right now." But overall, the optimism and belief that if they just work hard, they will prevail is at once heartening, and frightening. Sometimes, after all, hard work alone is simply not enough. 

Americans in general tend to look inward when placing blame and when seeking solutions. We say things like, I need to work harder, or I should have majored in something more practical. We buy self-help books and go back on diets. We lash ourselves for our failures and make deals with ourselves to do better next time. We rarely look outward to the systems or the larger forces that shape our worlds (the Wall Street tycoons who ran our economy into the ground or the food industry for making junk food so cheap and addictive). Create your own meaning, you're in charge of your own destiny-- that is the rallying cry of Americans. We absorb the individualism and self-made destinies from the moment we can begin to comprehend the world. And I hear that in the responses of this latest generation once again. 

Yet will that serve them well in a future almost certain to be fraught with class struggle, economic slippage, and dashed dreams? If it's always their own personal responsibility and personal fault, and when working hard turns out not to be enough, doesn't that lead simply to fatalism? And is this eternal optimism and individualism the reason why they are not taking to the streets like their peers in Europe and the Middle East? The kids in Europe came out in force with mere threats of a paltry tuition increase. When I told two German 20-somethings visiting over the summer how much debt our kids leave college with, they were speechless. And yet, nothing: no anger, no protest, no mobilizing from this American generation.

It is not an easy thing to shed a cultural story like the one we have inherited. But it seems if ever there was a time to look outward, not inward, this is it.