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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.

Technology has also transformed the job market. Think, for example, of supermarket checkout clerks and bank tellers, who are disappearing because of grocery store scanners and ATMs. Similarly, the old secretarial pool has gone extinct. Manufacturing has been altered, too, as robots replace factory workers. That makes for a “jobless” recovery — a scenario in which the gross domestic product has revived and the stock market has shot up, but the unemployment rate is still stuck at around 7 percent.

In that landscape, able-bodied, hardworking folk may have a hard time keeping a job. Highly skilled and well-educated workers will do better than their less-skilled counterparts, but even a college degree cannot guarantee success. Many recent college grads are struggling in low-paying retail jobs. In his 2013 exegesis, Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, economist Tyler Cowen forecasts declining living standards for all but a well-educated and resourceful elite.

There are no easy solutions to this dilemma, but there are certainly some social and political changes that would help. Education is a huge piece of the puzzle, starting with an extension of the standard school year from 180 days, a calendar that was better suited to an agricultural era. The nation needs better-funded universal preschool, and it needs to give students more help paying for post-secondary classes. In addition, students ought to be more competent in math and the sciences, whether they attend college or not.

In general, the United States needs to pay more attention to its younger citizens and less to its seniors, who are consuming too much in the way of resources. As Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund, has put it, we’re “eating our seed corn.” If we don’t do more to prepare youngsters for the workforce, the economy cannot grow. We will doom ourselves to a less prosperous future.

Before we can do any of those things, though, we need to understand what we’re up against. The standard Republican mantra — “lower taxes, less spending” — won’t get us anywhere. Democrats have a better idea in raising the minimum wage, but that hardly helps the larger economic problems. Neither party has yet understood how much the world has changed.

(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.)

Photo: Demitri. W via Flickr

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