Archive for January 2011

The Next Generation of American Dreamers

January 18, 2011

A few weeks ago, I had a blinding flash of the obvious.  What about the children and youths of the Great Recession?

While it’s common fare these days to hear presentations about the so-called Millennials — those young people born between 1982 and 2004, who are now seven years old to their late 20s – little has been said about how our nation’s current economic struggle will impact their thinking.

Millenials are often said to be highly nurtured, told they are “special” by their parents, and described as impatient or having a sense of entitlement about workplace advancement.  They have been described as  possessing a “different” kind of work ethic, so much so that teachers and managers have been encouraged to understand the learning and work styles of Millennials in order to inculcate them to the world of work.

So back to my flash…  It occurred to me that most of the research done on this particular generation and their attitudes about the workplace and life-in-general was done pre-Great Recession when there was a general sense of affluence.

So, what impact has the Great Recession had on the mindset of these Millennials?

How do these young people view the world as they sit poised to take over the reins and lead it?  After growing up in a sense of relative privilege, this new climate in which they are navigating is new territory.  Jobs and opportunities are no longer as readily available as they have been brought up to believe.  After all, in the past few years, we’ve seem almost nine million jobs lost, not to mention the several other million people struggling with long-term unemployment and underemployment.  Even for the Millenials who are not yet in the workplace, the economic experiences of parents, siblings, relatives and friends must have an impact on their view of the world and life.

Neil Howe and William Strauss are two of the preeminent historians that have mapped the impact of generations on our nation’s history, and how each generation is shaped by major events and shared experiences. In their analysis, generations are shaped by a “turning” – the series of events that influence the thinking and approach of generations to come.  An example of this would be the Great Depression/World War II shaping the “G.I.” generation, or the Vietnam/Civil Rights/Watergate era shaping the Boomers. (See http://www.lifecourse.com/mi/insight/timelines/generations.html)

It makes sense that these “turning” events shaped how future generations have perceived their role in the world.  I wonder if the Great Recession will qualify as new “turning” phenomena that help shape how the Millennials and subsequent generations will view their world?

Taking on the “ambition gap.”

In his 2005 tome “The World Is Flat,” Thomas Friedman coined the term “the ambition gap” to describe the disparity he saw between young Americans and their peers in places like China and India.  He described youth in these emerging economies as being driven by  ambition and a hyper-work ethic.  Those young people living in America?  Not so much.  But I wonder could a stronger work ethic and sense of ambition among our youth be a byproduct of the Great Recession?

It seems to me that ambition and work ethic are driven by two things.  First, you have to have strong motivation to change your situation — no doubt that poverty and economic hardship is an excellent motivator.  But you also need to couple that motivation for change with a sense of opportunity and efficacy.  This means you have to believe that your hard work will actually pay off in the long run.  Society has to allow you to advance when you maintain a personal commitment to make that advancement possible.  When combining a strong desire for change with a belief in opportunity and efficacy, there is a powerful combustion of internal motivation.  These were the driving factors for immigrants who have voluntarily come to America since its earliest days.

But with today’s American youth, it seems that the “ambition gap” — the lack of ambition, that is — is facilitated by a few factors.  I’m going to make some generalizations here, but see if they ring true.

Parenting and Affluence

Some young people have everything they think they need, having grown up in environments of privilege with plenty of consumable goods and services.  For some of these children and their families, this consumption was an illusion supported by readily available credit obtained in many forms.  In fact, this consumption culture led to a negative savings rate in the mid 2000’s where the average American household was routinely spending more than it brought in each year. (See “The Decline in the U.S. Personal Saving Rate: Is It Real and Is It a Puzzle? by Massimo Guidolin and Elizabeth A. La Jeunesse, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, November/December 2007)

Of course, some children grew up in homes of real wealth that allowed them to enjoy a very high standard of living (at least compared to the much of humanity).

Whether the wealth is real or illusory, when material needs seem to come automatically and when work occurs away from the home or is very abstract, it is difficult to communicate to children what the world of work is and the degree of effort that work entails.  True confession here — I don’t think I’ve been the most effective parent in this regard.  It is very challenging to find a balance between readily providing for your children and equipping them with the tools, skills, and sense of reality to make it on their own.

Cycles and Culture of Poverty

On the other side of the equation, there are millions of youths trapped in poverty — both urban and rural.  For young people of color, this trap is rooted in a historical context of racial discrimination and social injustice.  For non-minorities, racism may not be the driving factor, but through family dysfunctions and other difficult experiences, the family has fallen into a cycle and culture of poverty.  In today’s America, many young people living in a world of poverty can not see any way to crack the code of social advancement.   For these young Americans, the Great Recession is nothing new.

Good News-Bad News

The good news about the Great Recession is that the illusion of false affluence has been broken – or at least significantly cracked.  Young people in middle and upper classes might now realize that wealth is not a natural right of living in America.

The bad news, I’m less sanguine about the other part of the equation — whether our young people (and particularly those from a family history of poverty) possess a sense of American opportunity and efficacy.  I think this is what we call the American Dream.  The American Dream is not as simple as going to college, or owning a house, or raising a family.  It is really about the sense that ‘I can make my life better.’

This is a BIG challenge.  How do we restore a sense of the American Dream — opportunity and efficacy — for our America’s youth?

In the next blog, I’ll talk about a few great examples I’ve seen of educational initiatives that help develop the American Dream in the young Americans they serve.

— Hans Meeder