The Next Generation of American Dreamers

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

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

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6 Comments on “The Next Generation of American Dreamers”

  1. Wendie Palazzo Says:

    Very interesting comments – I think the connections that you have noted will be interesting to watch. The crash of the economy was certainly a wake-up call – no one has a “bird in the hand”. Everyone needs ambition, skill, intellect, and flexibility in order to prosper.

    Those who went to college are less represented among the unemployed. However, it will be interesting to see if the Millennials give greater consideration to the marketability of the degree they seek.

  2. As young people have observed their parents being downsized, rightsized and having their jobs off-shored, during the years leading up to the Great Recession they are beginning to think as many of their parents are now thinking. People are wanting more control in their lives. Many people are leaving the old guarantees of a paycheck to become entrepreneurs where they can see that they will be in charge of their futures. Gallup Polls indicate that about 70% of young people indicate that they want to be entrepreneurs at some time in their lives.

    The US education system however has done little to adjust to accomodate the needs of these student who are focusing on new entrepreneurial dreams. The Youth Entrepreneurship Alliance ( a group of organizations that have come together to share the message with policy makers of how entrepreneurial preparation empowers individuals and builds the economy. According to the latest US business census 81% of US business have no employees. We must help students develop the entrepreneurial skill as they will enter very entrepreneurial workplaces as they complete education.

    The Harvard Graduate School of Education has done research for the National Federation for Teaching Entrepreneruship (NFTE) that shows that especially students from improvished situations respond very positively to the Entrepreneurship Education that helps them see that they are in charge of their own lives. People are generally driven to be self sufficient!

    Your thoughts on how the Great Recession will impact this generation is a great discussion starter that should drive important conversations throughout the education, labor, and economic development communities. Just providing relief for those who become unemployed may not be the solution any more. In the past the jobs came back, it now appears from the data that people have to create their own ways to become self sufficient. It seems that having the skill sets that allow one to create products or perform services that others are willing to pay for is essential to individual success in the post Great Ression times.

  3. Lyn Velle Says:

    Hi Hans,
    Very insightful! Thanks for sharing,

  4. Steve Ayotte Says:

    Thought provoking, but I doubt we will see a true results of the Great Recession on the Millenials for a few more years. I believe parents have been true to form with this generation during the current crisis in sheltering their children from real harm, telling them everything will be ok and Mom and Dad will take care of it. And as far as development of a true work ethic, we live in a far different time. Work effort meant actually rolling up your sleaves and making, fixing, or producing something. Now we live in a time that if we are to truly work we need to embrace furthering our education within broad career clusters, and that kind of commitment will take time to develop and grow (if at all). Hard times should promote better, more critical thinking about why times are tough and how we can prevent it in the future. Only time will tell if our Millenials will take to the task of improving their lot in life and making sure what we see now is not just a sign of things to come.

  5. Mike Mitchell Says:

    We have yet to see how this generation will respond. This recession is severe and creating dislocations in the USA and world wide. Advances in technology are also rocking the boat. It look like the traditional pathway to successful careers is changing and provoking more creative ways to define success. I am not sure how these young people will ever find the money to pay for their advanced education. Some of the high level medical careers for example are now costing in excess of $100.000.

  6. Elaine Shapow Says:

    Recently, I have pondered how the great recession coupled with global economic competition and the legislation recently passed by Congress would continue to impact our nation’s ability to pull itself out of this downturned economy. Coupling these issues with the struggles our educational sector is involved in, further compounds how our millenials see their future and how well they are able to prepare for a successful career within it. I agree with the previous comments noted in realizing that all these issues will affect the lifestyles millenials will be able to have. It will be interesting to see whether they will be as concerned with material wealth and personal comfort, or with other goals that will determine their personal success in the workforce; and, if the educational infrastructure will be in place to enable them to attain these goals.

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