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Is it still the best place on earth for people of all stripes to realize their deepest hopes and aspirations? We never used to pause before answering this question. But trends these days are forcing us to stop and think a little before we answer now.
While the daily commentary on the nature of our post-2008 economic malaise is practically endless, we spend very little time talking about how the nature of America's opportunity environment has changed - even prior to the recession.
As we look to recover from our current economic stagnation, this deeper question about whether America is still the land of opportunity should be keeping us up at night.
The trends are disquieting.
Fewer people of working age are working. Our employment to population ratio, a measure of how many people of working age are actually working, has grown worse than Europe’s for the first time in history. The ratio was worsening before the recession, and Europe passed us by before the dark days of 2008.
Life below the top 20% is stagnant. America continues to be the aspiration nation for the upper middle class. But what about everyone else? Wages have basically been flat over the past decade. It’s getting harder to say to working and middle class Americans, “Hey, if you work hard, you’ll get ahead.” Getting ahead hasn’t been the experience of a vast number of Americans for quite awhile now. The long-term effects of stagnation are hard to predict, but a loss of aspiration is surely one of them - which is bad for America.
We aren’t creating new businesses like we used to. New and young businesses have driven job creation in America for years. But the rate at which we create new companies has been flat for 20 years, suggesting we’ve peaked in our ability to produce high-growth enterprises. Without increasing our rate of new firm formation, it's unlikely we'll see the kind of job growth our economy needs long term.
The working class is basically self-destructing before our eyes. By just about every measure of socioeconomic health, the lower middle class is falling apart. From higher divorce rates to out-of-wedlock childbearing to detachment from the workforce, the working class - which resembled the upper middle class in just about every measure except income a generation ago - now looks more like what is sometimes unflatteringly called the welfare class. Our image of working class America as the cauldron in which the ingredients of upward mobility are brewed is now outdated.
Young people are taking longer to grow up. This is especially true of men, as Kay Hymowitz has recently detailed in her book, Manning Up. A significant share of men in their twenties live in a strange zone between boyhood and manhood in which they live at home, don’t marry, and bounce around vocationally. And in general, people in their twenties delay marriage more than ever. The net effect is the slow death of the social norm that says people should graduate from high school or college and get about the business of making their own way.
Young people’s poor economic prospects are sowing the seeds of a potential lost generation. While unemployment among college-educated people is low, people in their twenties with college degrees have nevertheless been hit hard by our economically troubled times. Young workers are losing ground economically. They face lower wages, a tattered housing market, and a future colored by interest payments on public debt. We are likely witnessing the rise of a generation that will be worse off than their parents, which has a dampening effect on aspiration and how one views the future.
The American Dream as we’ve defined it for over a generation has been shattered. The American Dream has evolved over time. For everyone alive today, the Dream has essentially been wrapped up in the idea of homeownership, as Walter Russell Mead has recently recounted. The burst of the housing bubble changed all that. The crisis of default and depressed home values that followed has, for the first time most people can remember, refuted the notion that homeownership is the best long-term strategy for building equity. Uncertainty about how to build assets long-term is now pervasive in homes across the country, which dampens people's hopes about the future.
We are losing our affection for the transcendent. Many on the left, and some on the right, won’t think this matters. But by just about every measure, religiosity correlates with all the habits and virtues necessary for upward mobility. For this reason, it’s disturbing not only that we are growing more secular as a nation, but as Charles Murray has pointed out, secularism is growing more substantially among lower-income Americans.
Taken together, these trends cast a long shadow over our idea that America is the world's premier aspiration nation. America can't just be the land of opportunity for the top 20%. If hope and aspiration are largely a thing of the past for younger and poorer Americans, then it won't be long before our nation's greatest days are also a thing of the past.
Reversing these trends is perhaps the greatest calling of today's policymakers and cultural leaders. Let's hope enough of them heed the call before it's too late.