May 17, 2012

Are Hard Times Forcing Youth to Amend the American Dream?

Dave Martinez, 25, helps his daughter Kaidance, 5, with her homework. He says that family is most important: “It’s not about how much money I will have. I’ll be happy. It’s about what my children will have.” Photo by Emily Grobe.

By Emily Grobe
For Reporting Texas

A nice house and occasionally a new car. A good job. Enough money to be comfortable, maybe even to travel. Millions of Americans are still weaned on the expectation that they’ll do better than their parents and get their share of the American Dream.

But do diminishing economic prospects still allow such goals?

Even before America’s economy tanked in 2008, said Heidi Shierholz, labor market economist with the Economic Policy Institute, the “American Dream had already gotten a lot trickier to get to. But then the Great Recession happened.”

The huge loss of jobs that ensued has made achieving the traditional dream less likely, prompting soon-to-be graduates to reinterpret the dream itself.

A relatively small number of youth have taken to the streets in the Occupy movement to express frustration over perceived inequalities of opportunity in today’s economy. Others, as The New York Times pointed out recently, have joined nonpartisan movements such as Campaign for Young America and Fix Young America “to fight for this generation’s right to move out of the parental basement.”

Many young adults, however, have reacted to hard times by downsizing expectations. While baby boomers might have started adulthood spurning financial and material goals (before going on to achieve unprecedented success at both), today’s youth may not have the same options.

“For me, the American Dream means finding your calling, taking the passion you have and turning it into a profession,” said Zach Chastain, 22. But he acknowledges that his wouldn’t be possible without financial help from his parents.

Chastain, a West Texas native, pursued a medical degree with hopes of helping military veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Then he opted for an artistic dream, leaving medical school and enrolling in The Art Institute in Austin to become a portrait photographer.

“I’m lucky that my parents are able to help me do this and want me to do something that I’m passionate about – something that makes me happy,” Chastain said. “So I think I’m on track to pursuing my American Dream.”

Mariah Ojeda, 18, agrees that young people today are keen to pursue their passions. But job security is also a priority for her. “I used to think it was about the money and how much I made, but it isn’t anymore,” said Ojeda, a sophomore at Sam Houston State. “I would still like to be financially secure…but I want to be happy first.”

Ojeda started out as biology major, intending to be a high school athletic trainer, but then feared she wouldn’t get accepted into physical therapy school after graduation. So she switched to a major in human resource management, where she thinks getting a job will be easier.

Reaching material success is going to be more difficult for Chastain, Ojeda and many others who soon will enter the workforce. Shierholz said that compared with previous generations, today’s young adults have taken the biggest hit in the job market.

“In general, this group is entering with a severely reduced set of job opportunities,” she said. “We’ve never seen anything like this.”

Millennials have the highest unemployment rate since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping statistics in the 1960s. The jobless rate at the end of 2011 was 16.3 percent for 18- to 24-year-olds, compared with 8.8 percent for all adults ages 18 to 64, the widest spread recorded between the two groups.

The EPI estimates that 3.7 workers compete for every job available in today’s market; according to Shierholz, that ratio should be closer to 1 to 1. “The competition is very stiff right now. There are just not enough to go around,” she said about jobs.

Those who find jobs have to re-set their salary expectations. Luckily for Ojeda, her range falls in line with what experts consider realistic figures. “If I made $30,000-$40,000 right out of college, I would be more than happy,” she said.

While some young adults might have adjusted their financial and goals, others still seek the traditional dream. For Kenneth Prater, 32, owning a home, having a well-paying job and supporting a family remain his measures of success, and he insists it his goals are attainable.

Prater works part time at Best Buy and has returned to school at Temple College to finish his bachelor’s degree in network administration. After getting out of the military, he wanted to show his kids how to “be a productive member of society.”

“I want to be able to continue to contribute to a world that is most beneficial for my children so they have the opportunity to pursue their dreams,” he said. “I think the American Dream is still very much alive.”

Dave Martinez, a 25-year-old father of two with no college degree, said he feel his version of the dream is very close, just harder to get to with the economy the way it is. His wife, Amie, works off and on as a bank teller so their children can spend as much time with them as possible.

“I work hard every day,” said Martinez, a tank car maintenance man at Dow Chemical in Port Lavaca. “But I do it because I know if I keep it up, my family will be provided for and we will all be happy. That is what is most important. It’s not about how much money I will have. I’ll be happy. It’s about what my children will have.”

A Surprisingly Durable ‘Dream’

A recent Pew Research Center study, “Young, Underemployed and Optimistic,” found that among those 18 to 34, nearly nine in 10 people say they earn enough money now or will earn enough money in the future, an optimistic notion given the tight job market and lack of available opportunities.

“Today’s young adults would say no, the American dream isn’t dead,” Kim Parker, associate director of Pew’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, said. “We were really surprised by that.”

The study also indicates that parents are more sympathetic with their children’s progress toward their dream. The youngest generation has remained financially dependent on their parents longer than any other cohort, allowing them to pursue their education further than any other cohort.

A 1993 Newsweek poll showed that 80 percent of parents said their young children should be financially independent by the age 22. Today, according to the most recent Pew study, 67 percent of parents hold that view. About 31 percent say that children shouldn’t be on their own financially until 25 or older.

That result doesn’t surprise Chastain, who said that young adults have it much harder than their parents did and that getting an education is more expensive than it used to be.

His mother “didn’t need a college degree to go get a job or start her career,” said Chastain, whose parents are helping pay for his education. “Now, you have to have at least a bachelor’s and, in some cases, a master’s degree. And if you don’t have a degree, no one is hiring. It’s hard to be financially independent without those things.”

Ojeda agrees. “My mom is paying for me to be in school and still has my sister at home,” she said. “But I couldn’t go to school full time without her help so it’s just the way it is.”

Prater, a generation older, sees things differently. “I think young adults today don’t care as much about the things that they have,” he said. “They don’t realize how hard it is. I think they believe everything is going to be handed to them.”

Chastain adds: “I think my generation is lazy. But, at the same time, the economy isn’t helping.”

Motivation, of course, is a matter of debate. In their book “Generation We,” authors Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber noted that Millennials are “noncynical and civic-minded” and that they “believe in the value of political engagement and are convinced that government can be a powerful force for good.”

But the opposite may be true, according to Monitoring the Future, an annual survey of American eighth, 10th and 12th grade students, conducted by the University of Michigan for four decades, and the American Freshman survey of first-year college students, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute. The research found that Millennials were less likely than baby boomers and even GenXers to say they thought about social problems and to be interested in politics and government. They also were less likely to say they trusted the government to do what’s right. Millennials were also slightly less likely to say they wanted a job that was helpful to others or was worthwhile to society.

According to the Pew Research Center, 82 percent of respondents say finding a job is harder for today’s young adults than it was for previous generations. And 75 percent say it’s harder to save for the future, pay for college or buy a home.

And contrary to a commonly held notion, students are not waiting out the slump by taking shelter in college. Since the recession hit in 2008, enrollment at colleges and universities across the nation has increased about 1 percent annually, according to the Pew Research Center, not far from the average 0.7 percent annually since 1985.

“If I gave up this job and went to school, there may not be another job for me when I get out,” Martinez said. “I’d rather not take that risk. Doing that would make everything even harder for me and my family.”

Turning ‘Nightmare’ Into First Job

Young people entering the work force “are less likely to find a good match” of skills and jobs, Shierholz said. “Anyway you slice it, this is a nightmare labor market to be a job seeker.”

According to Tara Iagulli, director of career services for the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin, graduates of certain majors find employment easier than others, but job placement has been more difficult in the past two years.

“The graduates that have skills that are needed in the workplace are finding jobs right away,” she said. “We are seeing that in the computer science fields and areas similar to that.”

Iagulli said only about 30 percent of the graduates from the School of Information – most of whom are pursuing library-type degrees – are finding work right out of school. About 70 percent are on the hunt for no more than about three months.

“Some of it is luck in interviewing, some of it is competitiveness. The students that tend to do well are the ones that start early,” she said.

Opportunities are starting to look up, though, Iagulli said. “This year is looking better than last year, and way better than 2010,” she said. “We are happy to see a little bit of an uptick.”

Chastain remains optimistic. “Sadly, I think I don’t have much option but to struggle,” he said. “But if I’m doing what I love and I’ve given it my all, I think I can say I will have reached my idea of the American Dream.”

He also has a Plan B, based on his previous career goal.

“If in a couple of years, I get out of school, and my financial situation doesn’t improve pretty quickly, I’ll turn around and go back to school and pursue my medical degree,” he said. “That is still a perfectly good American Dream.”