Is the American Dream Just a Fantasy?
On June 15th The Atlantic published an article titled “Teenagers Are Losing Confidence in the American Dream,” detailing the difference in how current Midwest high school seniors described the ability to be successful in America versus those in 1996. The article suggested the occurrence of an “eroding” American Dream. While teenagers in the ‘90s once described the path to success in America as based predominantly on effort and hard work (that could even be hindered by a financial cushion), teenagers now feel that success comes only with opportunities that revolve around money.
To delve further into this topic, BAV used our extensive dataset to investigate how young Americans (ages 18-24) view our country, and whether they would describe it differently today than this same demographic did 20 years ago. What BAV found is that while young adults’ overall impressions of the US are still high, key descriptors have, in fact, changed. Young adults in 1997 described the US as more Straightforward, Prestigious, and Progressive, three qualities imperative to the American Dream ideal. However, young Americans today feel that the US has become increasingly High Quality, High Performance, and Upper Class, qualities that promote the power of the US brand, but do not necessarily embody the “meritocracy” ideal for which the American Dream stands.
So, if young adults don’t believe in the American dream anymore, is there another country that they feel is gaining in popularity or success? To answer this question, we created a Powergrid using Brand Stature (Energized Differentiation and Relevance) and Brand Strength (Esteem and Knowledge). Although young Americans clearly view the US as superior for both of these measures in 1997 and 2014, their opinion of almost all other countries tracked in both years has improved with the exception of Cuba, Russia, Holland, and India. By far the most improved perception was of China, which moved from the new or undifferentiated quadrant to the leadership brand quadrant in 2014. Among China’s attributes that increased were Prestigious, Charming, Unique, and Different, all of which declined over time for the US.
In summary, the ideal of the “American Dream” has changed among young adults since 1997. What was once seen as a straightforward meritocracy has been increasingly influenced by inherited socioeconomic status, according to 2014 high school graduates. While young adults continue to think positively about the US, their opinions of other countries, such as China, also continue to climb. This has large policy implications if other countries are thought of to be fairer to hard workers who are looking for upward mobility, and could cost the US bright young students in the future if it is not addressed.