The Great Debate

The deludedly optimistic youth of America

By Chadwick Matlin
The opinions expressed are his own.

Friday was a slightly-better bad day to be a young person in America. The morning’s unemployment said 14 percent of Americans 20-24 years old are now unemployed, down 0.7 points from September. Teenagers’ rate was similarly down, dropping 0.5 points to 24.1 overall.

But still—14 and 24.1 percent! Well above the national average of 9 percent, which isn’t exactly something the Millennials can look forward to.

And yet young people remain stubbornly optimistic. In a comprehensive new survey of 842 young people that Demos, a New York think tank, released this week, almost 69 percent of Americans 18-34 years old “believe the American dream is still achievable.” In other news, the average student debt for new graduates is now $25,250, larger than ever. (To be fair, this isn’t entirely recession-related. My debt was around $100,000 when I graduated, and that was a year and a half before Lehman went belly-up.)

Politicians are as deluded as young people. Rick Perry, in a slurry speech that’s better known for its delivery than its content, said last week that “our obligation is not only to provide children with the best environment to nurture, but to ensure every child inherits a land full of opportunity.” Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, meanwhile, are spending Friday at the “Defending the American Dream” summit. And the Dream dream affects Democrats too. Don’t forget about Barack Obama’s now-abandoned Win the Future campaign, which acknowledged that while things are awful, they could easily get better—if only we tried. A dysfunctional Congress scoffs at such a quaint notion.

A person prone to cynicism—(read: this author)—looks at this wishful thinking and blames it on demographics, which is to say blames it on politics. The perpetuation of the American Dream, despite all evidence suggesting the American Dream has died, is good politics in the way that Good Politics is almost always quite bad. It hijacks the American character while ignoring the American reality.

Obama and the American dream in reverse

“It’s like the American dream in reverse.” That’s how President Barack Obama, ten days after taking office last year, described the plight of Americans hit by the faltering economy. His catchy description fell short — the dream has turned into a nightmare for tens of millions.

So much so that an opinion poll this week showed that 43 percent of those surveyed thought that “the American Dream” is a thing of the past. It “once held true” but no longer does. Only half the country believes the dream “still exists,” according to the poll, commissioned by ABC News and Yahoo against a background of dismal statistics on growing poverty, inequality, unemployment, and Americans without health insurance.

Before turning to the gloomy numbers, a brief detour to the meaning of the phrase “the American Dream,” long a familiar part of the U.S. (and international) lexicon.  The survey defined it as “if you work hard, you get ahead.” That’s neat shorthand for the concept that the American social, economic and political system makes success possible for everyone.