February 18, 2009 / 12:33 AM / 10 years ago

Will things get better for next U.S. generation?

DALLAS (Reuters) - Kim Bischof is entering the U.S. job market after she finishes college in May with a degree in special education and is confident that the “American Dream’ is still alive for her, recession be dammed.

MBA student Chester Lui (R) talks to MIT alumnus John Sallay as part of the Industry Advisors Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts in this February 12, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/Files

“There is a high demand for special education teachers ... I’m not too worried about getting a job and job security,” said Bischof, 24, of Anderson, Ohio.

She also feels she will live at least as well as her parents did despite the fact that she is entering an economy suffering the worst recession for decades.

Her optimism, echoed by other students in interviews, may reflect the fact that many young Americans today are indeed better off than their parents were at the same age.

U.S. politicians constantly refer to the “American Dream,” best defined as the idea that each generation will live a better life than the one before. By now, the mantra has taken on the quality almost of a basic American right that young people can count on automatically.

The current economic crisis is hitting hard but has yet to puncture that basic optimism among young people.

“I think I’ll have more opportunities than my parents had ... Opportunity is being driven by technology,” said Theron Bowman, 20, who will graduate this spring from Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas with an economics degree.

Among respondents aged 18 to 29 interviewed in October of 2008 for a Pew Research Center survey, 51 percent said they thought children today will be better off than their parents when they grow up. That was considerably higher than among any other age group.

Other students on the SMU campus also had high hopes for the future. Jordan Jenkins, 20, a second-year engineering student, agreed that technology was opening opportunities unimaginable to his parents.

He planned to go into video game design, a sector he believes is just going to keep growing.

Some students said the immediate outlook was sour but they were not worried in the long run. Emily Stegich, 20, is majoring in economics said “I am staying in school as long as possible.” But she is hopeful that things will pick up in a few years when she plans to enter the job market.


Some analysts are not so sanguine.

Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution think-tank worries about two long-term threats to economic growth.

“One is the fiscal imbalance in the federal government where we are projected to spend much more than we are raising in revenue. The levels of debt we are leaving to our children are alarming. The other ... is global warming and its effect on future economic growth,” she said.

Isaacs’ work has found that while family incomes did rise in the last quarter of the 20th century, people had to work many more hours to achieve this.

Her research found two thirds percent of Americans who were children in 1968 had higher levels of real family income in 1995 to 2002 than their parents three decades earlier.

But she also confirmed other studies which have found middle-class and blue collar wages stagnating since the 1970s. Family incomes grew mainly because more women joined the workforce.

Isaacs’ 2008 report found that median U.S. family income rose to $53,280 by the middle of this decade in 2004 dollars from $37,384 in 1964. But for males aged 30 to 39, average annual personal income fell from the mid-1970s by around $5,000 to $35,000.

Many analysts agree U.S. workers are doing more for less as wages fail to keep pace with productivity gains. Factors such as globalization and declining union memberships are most often cited to explain this.

Young people today have much higher expectations than their parents. While most desired a house, car and TV in the 1960s, middle-class affluence today demands a minimum of two cars, personal computers, cell phones and many other consumer goods.

In Phoenix, 16-year-old Yesenia Fuentes is under no illusions about her future.

The high school senior and daughter of Mexican immigrants is trying to finish her studies while working 40 hours a week at a fast-food restaurant to support her family who lean on her as the sole breadwinner. The family home has been foreclosed.

Supporters cheer and wave American flags during an election night rally in Chicago, November 4, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Young

“Our parents say ‘we don’t want you to go through what we went through, that’s why we’re here. You have a better life, better choices and better opportunities,” said Yesenia.

“Back then it was easier, everything was cheaper, there were problems, but not like how it is right now, people losing their jobs, foreclosed houses ... My parents want to go back to Mexico, but I want to stay here and go to college,” she said.

She will be the first in her family to finish high school — one crucial step in the pursuit of the American dream.

Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix and Andrea Hopkins in Cincinnati, editing by Alan Elsner

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