Watching a graduation awards program at a parochial high school last week, I smiled with the soon-to-be grads, most of whom seemed giddy with anticipation at the next phase of their lives. It’s the season for those rituals — the ceremonies, the parties, the congratulatory toasts.
The program that I attended involved sons and daughters of the middle class, young men and women who have benefited from homes where, at the very least, parents have the means and the motivation to pay tuition. That suggests a level of family support that bodes well for the grads as they go on to college and careers.
They’ve grown up in homes where education was valued, where a high school diploma was expected, where post-secondary study was anticipated. They have been given an enormous advantage over students from poorer homes, where parents lack financial resources and finishing high school may seem a challenge. The economic landscape is friendlier territory for those who not only obtain a high school diploma but also a degree beyond that.
But even that post-secondary education is no guarantee of a steady job or career. Today’s job market is not easy to navigate, no matter how many degrees you’ve got under your belt. The economy has changed dramatically in the last 20 years — it’s not just the aftermath of the Great Recession, but also structural change — and we’re still struggling to get used to it. The American Dream is not what it once was.
Throughout the nation’s history, Americans have expected that each generation will be more prosperous than the last, that children will be more financially secure than their parents, that the economy will continue to grow to accommodate any man or woman willing to work hard. To be sure, that’s never been strictly true. But it’s been true enough to allow the mythology to thrive.
Not anymore. Globalization has pushed industry to countries, such as Bangladesh and Vietnam, that lacked an industrial base as recently as the 1980s. That means that factory jobs that were once plentiful in the United States have fled, and they’re unlikely ever to return.