Americans are suffering and none so much as the young people of this country. In December 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a disturbing report, “Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health” that paints a troubling picture of young people 3 to 17 years-of-age.
The report notes that over the decade between 2009 to 2019 the “mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people” for one in five children. Digging deeper, it reports 40 percent – or one in three — of “high school students … reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” 19 percent reported “seriously considering attempting suicide” (up 36% over the decade) and 16 percent “made a suicide plan in the prior year” (up 44 percent). Most disturbing, an estimated 6,600 youth ages 10-24 committed suicide in 2020 alone – and this was before the Covid pandemic.
Despair has become an endemic feature of postmodern American life and signals the end of what has long the called “the American Dream.” “One of the defining features of the ‘American Dream’ is the ideal that children have a higher standard of living than their parents,” notes Harvard’s Opportunity Insights group. It then adds:
We find that rates of absolute mobility have fallen from approximately 90% for children born in 1940 to 50% for children born in the 1980s. Absolute income mobility has fallen across the entire income distribution, with the largest declines for families in the middle class.
And for children born in the 2000s? Their future in terms of mobility, of achieving a higher standard of living than their parents, looks increasingly bleak.
Nearly a century ago, Pres. Herbert Hoover chose as his 1928 presidential campaign slogan a simple promise: “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” It captured the spirit of the nation’s optimistic possibilities, of social mobility that envisioned ordinary White Americans living a better, more comfortable, middle-class life.
The stock market crash of October 24, 1929, set in motion a process that came to be known as the Great Depression. Hoover believed the mounting crisis was part of a passing recession and took a hands-off approach, refusing to involve the federal government in key economic issues like price regulation or currency valuation. As the Gilder Lehrman Institute notes, “[Hoover] was inclined to give indirect aid to banks or local public works projects, but he refused to use federal money for direct aid to citizens, believing the dole would weaken public morale.” Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 and died in office in 1945 as World War II was coming to an end.
In The Riches of This Land: The Untold, True Story of America’s Middle Class, Jim Tankersley describes what he calls the “Golden Era” of the postwar prosperity:
What they’re [middleclass people] aspiring to is security. The ability to own a home and care, save enough to retire, provide for a family, and give any kids they might have (and definitely do not get to sell) the opportunity and resources to enjoy a life at least as successful as their own—and hopefully a better one.
This sentiment came to be known as the American Dream, something shared by not only white working people but, in time, African Americans and immigrants.
Some scholars trace the concept of the “American Dream” to the nation’s founding. Jim Cullen, in The American Dream, argues that the
Declaration of Independence foreshadows the Dream in its call that “certain truths to be self-evident: that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Going further, Cullen notes that Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, anticipated the Dream with his notion of “the charm of anticipated success.”
However, the term “American Dream” appears to have been first used by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 novel, Epic of America. It is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement,” he wrote. He then goes into more detail:
Its achievement is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position…
The American dream … a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.
In an American racked by the Great Depression and the WW-II, hope kept the Dream alive.
The American Dream became a reality for many during the post-WW-II era, a period in which U.S. capitalism witnessed phenomenal economic growth, giving birth to globalization and the modern consumer society. For ordinary working- or middle-class Americans, the period saw unprecedented wage increases along with key ancillary benefits like unemployment compensation, retirement plans and social insurance programs. In addition, the GI Bill enabled urban renters to become suburban private homeowners and see high-school grads go to college; restrictive covenants and other policies blocked African Americans from much of the postwar prosperity.
Beginning in the eary-1970s, two factors began to erode the American Dream – one social, the other economic. The social dislocation of the 1960s was marked by the civil-rights movement, anti-Vietnam War protests, the counterculture of sex, drugs & rock-and-roll, second-wave feminism, out homosexuals and consumer activists led by Ralph Nader.
Simultaneously, U.S. economic growth began to stall. Wages were flattening; “stagflation” was setting in; the decline in union membership; and, in ’71, Pres. Richard Nixon decoupled the dollar from the gold standard and imposed wage-and-price controls. Compounding the domestic crisis, an international oil crisis fostered global instability. All made American life more uncertain. As the Vietnam war faltered, the Dream of prosperity began to erode.
Despair has become an endemic feature of the erosion of the American Dream. Since the post-WW-II recovery, homeownership symbolized the fulfillment of the American Dream. A 2022 poll found that nearly three-quarters (74%) of Americans place owning a home above career, family and college as a sign of prosperity.
Yet, the dream may be fading as suggested by the decline in first-time homebuying. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports a 38 percent decline in such buying in 2022 over last year – the lowest rate since 1987. It also estimates that about 2.5 million households — or 15 percent — of those shopping for a first home will be shut out of the market this year. Does this decline in first-time homebuyers suggest a problem that may be systemic, the end of the American Dream?
One of the most glaring expressions of this erosion is the deepening income and wealth inequality among Americans. A study by researchers from the University of Colorado–Boulder and Williams College (MA) of the compensation of thousands of U.S. corporate executives between 1993 and 2013 concluded that “recent globalization trends have increased U.S. inequality by disproportionately raising top incomes.”
These findings are corroborated by other studies. For example, a 2015 report by the Economic Policy Institute found executive pay had grown by 997 percent between 1978 and 2014, while the average compensation for a private-sector production and nonsupervisory worker increased by just 10.9 percent.
In 2015, the Pew Center calculated that upper-income households saw their pay rise 47 percent between 1970 and 2014. Middle-income households enjoyed a median gain of only 34 percent over that window, while lower-income households posted a 28 percent gain. Inequality.org reports: “Over 20 percent of our nation’s income flows to the top 1 percent. The top 1 percent’s share of our country’s wealth is approaching 40 percent. Our top 0.1 percent hold roughly the same share of our wealth as our bottom 90 percent.”
The Covid pandemic only made deepened inequality – and increased youth despair. The CDC found that in 2021 (the latest data), more than a third (37%) of high school students “experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic” and more than four-our-of-ten (44%) reported they “persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.”
Making matters worse, CDC also found that nearly three-in-ten (29%) young people reported a parent or other adult in their home lost a job. In addition, more than half (55%) reported they experienced emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, including swearing at, insulting, or putting down the student – and 11 percent experienced physical abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, including hitting, beating, kicking, or physically hurting the student.
The American Dream seems to be fading and the nation’s future doesn’t look very bright. Youth despair may well be a symptom of the deepening resentment fueling the growing rightwing, nationalistic – pro-Trump – movement. Failing to address the symptom made only make things worse.