Teenagers Are Losing Confidence in the American Dream

Compared to their counterparts in recent years, high-school seniors in the mid-1990s appeared to have more faith in social mobility and less confidence in the power of having money.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

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.)

The study’s authors, Carol Hostetter, Sabrina Williamson Sullenberger, and Leila Wood, observe that the palpable faith in meritocracy in the 90s faded, making way in the 2010s for a belief in what they call “The American Dream 2.0.” “In this version of the American Dream, anyone can go to college IF they have the resources, are ok about going into debt, can somehow get the coveted scholarship, are willing to go to community college, or come from a family of means,” they write. The new normal appears to be meritocracy with an asterisk.

Their study takes interviews that Hostetter collected in 1996 for her dissertation and sets them alongside surveys they administered in 2011, with the same prompts and questions. Even though the study’s samples aren’t representative, capturing young people’s attitudes and feelings on paper is useful part of a sociological conversation that is often about looking at the same limited sets of numbers from different angles, under different light.

As views on self-advancement changed over that decade and a half, so did views on the advantages of having lots of money. In 1996, high-schoolers were more likely to feel that wealth wasn’t a ticket to happiness, and a lack of opportunity might even have character-building advantages. “If I was rich, I could see where it could come easy just to take it for granted,” one participant said. By contrast, the 2011 group tended to think that wealth made people happier overall, because it affords them material goods, such as Apple laptops, that would give them the respect and attention of their peers.

Perceptions of higher education’s attainability also appeared to shift over the course of 15 years. Both the 1996 and 2011 cohorts saw college fundamentally as a choice, but in 2011, students were more sensitive to the idea that money is a barrier for some. “When you are lower class I don’t think that you get that downpour of, ‘Here’s how you pay for college,’ ‘You’re going to college,’” one student observed.

Taking all of this together, teens (or at least a few of them in that unnamed Midwestern state) have lost confidence in the power of meritocracy and gained faith in the power of money. Generally, an updated version is supposed to be better than its predecessor, but the American Dream 2.0 doesn’t seem like much of an improvement.