The American Dream is dead, and the United States is on the wrong track, say Millennials, aged 18 to 29, according to a poll by the Time/Rockefeller Foundation. Half of poll respondents stated that it was better to live in the 1990s than today, while nearly a third (29 percent) said America’s best days have passed.
Economics are at the root of the pessimism, says Professor Leonard Steinhorn, director of the Public Communication Division, School of Communication at Washington, DC-based American University. “Times are tough. When young people feel they can’t afford to go to the beach, because gas is so high, and the mortgage system is in relative collapse, and housing prices are high, and the car industry is laying off more people, and banks are shutting down, while Gen Y is facing huge higher education expenses—because higher education is so necessary to have—it is no surprise that there is a degree of pessimism,” he explains.
The majority of survey respondents (58 percent) stated that they had to borrow money in 2007 to cope with rising costs.
With many polls reflecting the same general attitude of most Americans, what makes Millennials different from other cohorts? Life stage, says Steinhorn, a noted generational expert.
“When you are looking to establish your life and find a home, and think about raising a family, and you are facing these economic circumstances, it is intimidating,” Steinhorn explains. “They start to get nervous that a stagnating workforce won’t create as many opportunities for them. This gets driven by economic circumstances and they are not so good right now.”
However, Millennials will be able to face the hardships, he says. The nation has seen challenging times before, and people are resilient. “People adapt and deal with it, even though they get frustrated. It is not like they stop wanting a home or having kids,” he says.
A huge majority of respondents (82 percent) stated that they feel the government should invest in creating more jobs for Americans, indicating that the job market is another pressing worry. “I do know that young people may feel as though they are trying to elbow each other for space in the workplace, and in the housing market.” Steinhorn says. “When the Boomers retire, they may be far less stressed out than how they are feeling now.”
Steinhorn, author of The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy, compares Millennials with another populous cohort—the Baby Boomers. “As Boomers, we constantly had to compete with one another because there were more of us,” Steinhorn explains. “Once Boomers start to retire, young people will advance more quickly; we will need people to run and manage companies.”
“Generation Y is overreacting to the fear mongers preaching doomsday on the latest fictional edition of unbalance on Fox News or CNN,” argues 23 year-old Kyle Davie of RealWorld Integrated Marketing Communications at Texas Christian University.
Davie contends that since the country is in a state of transition, people are prone to think in “increments of extremes. Right now, the extreme is that the United States of America is ‘going down the tubes.’”
“Sure things are bad,” Davie allows, “but not 1920s-stock-market-crash bad. We live in a global economy so the new elections will need someone that has a global mind in the way we think and act as a country.”
Like Steinhorn, Davie sees a productive future for Millennials in the workplace. “I see businesses still moving forward and college students finding jobs out of graduation.”
Steinhorn says that the upcoming political election will be vital to the economy, adding that it is futile to try to predict now how levels of pessimism, driven so acutely by the economy, will change, if at all. “There is no way of knowing if the economy will pick up; that will depend on who is elected president,” he says.
Davie agrees. “The question to me is, ‘how will the elder statesmen steer us forward?’”
Steinhorn underscores the importance of the economic situation, and the role the future president will play in bolstering the national attitude. “So much of this [pessimism] is really sensitive to the economic circumstances of the time. In six years if the economy turns itself around, or the car industry turns itself around, or if we are out of Iraq—there could be all sorts of circumstances that will affect that,” he explains. “To quote Yogi Berra, ‘I never make predictions, especially about the future.’ It is not all that credible to look into the crystal ball.”
Time will tell, he says, adding, “Sometimes when you make one pronouncement, the opposite happens. The theory of unintended consequences is great.”