In 1996, when asked a series of questions about the brightness of her future, one high-school senior in an unnamed Midwestern state said, “There’s been extraordinary examples of people that have been poor and stuff that have risen to the top just from their personal hard work … not everybody can do that, I realize, but I think a lot of people could if they just tried.”
In 2011, a survey with identically worded questions was done in the same state, with the same age group. “You can always work hard, but if you aren’t given the opportunity or you don’t have the funds to be able to continue working hard then you never get the chance to get out of where you are,” said one student.
What a difference 15 years makes. In the 1990s, those loosed upon the world after high-school graduation faced a booming economy and relatively sunny job prospects; more recently, high-school and college graduates have faced less hospitable conditions. A study published recently in the Journal of Poverty juxtaposes adolescents’ perceptions from those two eras, and the results, while qualitative and limited by their small sample size, suggest that young Americans’ outlook on social mobility has gotten bleaker. (The study’s findings align with a more-expansive survey of young people suggesting an erosion of confidence in the American Dream.)