American Dream (Trend Analysis)
Estimated Number of Printed Pages: 3
TOPICS COVERED: All right, "American Dream" is another one of the titles we used because you sort of know what we mean, but it isn't really what we're talking about. We're not talking about the house with the picket fence and 2.3 kids in the yard, exactly. Instead, "American Dream" is the phrase that U.S. media frequently use to capture the belief that you will do better economically than your parents' generation. We know, of course, that parental expectations of children's success aren't limited to Americans. (In fact, neither is this material.) But since what we're really doing here is confronting the popular myth that post-Boomers believe they will do worse off economically than their parents, we thought we'd use the media's term. Stealing our own thunder – it turns out that post-Boomers are consistently optimistic about their economic future.
MEMOS ON RELATED INFORMATION: Keeping Up With the Joneses, Poverty, Ozzie and Harriet Land,
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The post-Boomer generation is the first generation that expects to – and probably will – be worse off economically than its parents.
Point 1: The post-Boomer generation can't be the first generation to expect to be worse off than its parents – and it isn't.
I think this theme started really catching on following President Bill Clinton's 1991-1992 campaign statements that he didn't want his daughter's generation to do worse off than his. At least that's when I remember first hearing it. But there – notwithstanding my loyalist tendencies – he was expressly articulating his viewpoint as a concerned parent. He wasn't saying, as far as I can find, that he believed Chelsea's generation would be worse off, nor that the majority believed that. Instead, he was saying that we can't let things get that far. 1.
Things get more concrete in 1994. Then Republican Senator from Texas Phil Gramm that "recent polling data, showing that for the first time, Americans do not believe they are better off than their parents were." 2. I can't find that poll, but I'll take him at his word.
And the media's / pundits have been using that idea ever since – that this is the first generation that expects to do worse off than its parents.
In 1980, 14 years earlier, Newsweek did a special report on "An Economic Dream in Peril," writing:
"And no longer do Americans share the great expectations of generations past. For the first time, public-opinion polls show that the average U.S. citizen is not at all sure that his children's lot will be better than – or even as good as – his own." 3.
Which should not be surprising, because there was an economic downturn leading into the 1980s recession.
According to The New York Times, the oldest ongoing poll on public sentiment only dates back to 1951. 4. Not only is that decades after the Great Depression, years after WWII, but it was at the beginning of the American post-WWII economic boom. So the polling results would be inherently more optimistic – have an inflated belief of coming success.
Had polling existed during the Depression or either World War, I find it unlikely that people would have been so sure their children would live in a better world and that they'd be better off financially. They would have wanted that to be true – hoped it was, prayed it was. But did they actually expect it to be true? Then, once you start thinking about it historically (uh, slavery? war? a history of recessions and every 20 year cycle of bank failures in the 1800s?), I think it quickly becomes a sort of ridiculous statement. It's the American Dream – not the American Expectation.
Point 2: Actually, polls in done in the last decade consistently show that the post-Boomer generation expects to do as well or even better than their parents.
Again, I believe that Senator Gramm was accurately enough representing the New York Times poll – but 1994 was in an economic downturn, so it was an atypical moment of doubt.
Because actually most Boomer and now post-Boomer parents expect their kids to do as well or better than they are doing – and their children share that view.
We tried to find all those negative reports – and we simply couldn't find them. But we were so sure of the gloomy pessimism of our peers, that we couldn't believe that, thought it was our research that was wrong. So we went back and looked again. And again. And we never did find them.
Instead, we found that in survey after survey – from those done in the United States to those in Canada and the United Kingdom – the clear majority believe they will do as well or better than their parents. Even in 1995, less than a year after Gramm gave that speech, parents who believed their children who would do better were back into the majority. 5. And since then, it hasn't even been a close call. It's usually 60 percent who thought things would be better or the same. In one survey we found, taken in 2002 – well into a more bearish economy – over 80 percent of college students still thought they would do better than their parents. 6.
1. As President Clinton explained, "You know, when I ran for President, I did so out of a sense of obligation to the next generation. I often said in 1992 I did not want my daughter to grow up in a country in which she was part of the first generation of Americans to do worse than her parents and in which her beloved land was coming apart when it ought to be coming together." William Jefferson Clinton, "Remarks By the President At The Congressional Black Caucus Dinner," The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Washington DC (September 17, 1994). Archived at:
2. Phil Gramm, "Rethinking the American Dream," Speech to the Daughters of the American Revolution, on Issue Spotlight (April 20, 1994). Accessed at on August 15, 2005.
3. M. Sheils, "Economic Dream in Peril," Newsweek, Vol. 96, pp. 50-2 (September 8, 1980).
4. Louis Uchitelle, "Three Decades of Dwindling Hope for Prosperity," The New York Times, p. E1 (May 9. 1993). Archived at:
5. _________, A National Public Opinion Survey Conducted for the Council for Excellence in Government, Research Firms of Peter D. Hart and Robert M. Teeter (March 1995). Accessed at: on September 15, 2005.
6. _________, "Despite the Shaky Economy, 81 Percent of College Students Think They Will Be Better Off Than Their Parents," Press Release, Ernst & Young (September 9, 2002).