Monday, August 06, 2018

Upward Mobility is Now a Myth in America

For many Americans it has been taken as gospel that upward mobility is the norm in America and that each generation can expect to achieve a higher status than that of their parents.  Perhaps that was true once upon at time, but it is no longer the case except in increasingly rare instances.  Indeed, a number of studies have found that Europe - derided as "Old Europe" by many "conservatives" - offers younger generations more chances at upward mobility than can now be anticipated in America. Now, downward mobility is what terrifies even middle class and upper middle class families. What happened?  A number of things, not the least of which has been decades of Republican warfare against labor unions, state right to work laws, and policies that enable big corporations to reap huge profits while workers are treated as disposable and easily replaceable trash.  Wages have stagnated even as the cost of living has soared.  Hardest impacted are Milennials who even with college degrees often cannot secure high paying jobs.  A column in the Washington Post looks at the growing myth of upward social mobility in today's America.  Here are some highlights:

It’s an axiom among many Americans that each future generation will live better than its predecessor. New technologies, greater efficiencies and a can-do spirit will reward us with higher living standards. There might be periodic stumbles, but the long-term trajectory is up. And the people most guaranteed to enjoy this bountiful future are the children of today’s upper-middle class.
That’s the conventional wisdom. Ditch it.
If you are an upper-middle-class parent, as I am, you must have noticed that the real world isn’t playing according to script. Among many young Americans, there is downward mobility. The children aren’t achieving what they (and their parents) expected. Even when they have (and many have), the gains could be eroded in the future. The trajectory is not inevitably up. Parents worry about their children’s fate.
Partly, this reflects the memory of the 2007-2009 Great Recession and its huge job losses. But it’s more than that. Compared with their elders, many younger Americans are doing worse. Despite today’s strong economy, they’re falling behind.
We know this from an important study by Raj Chetty and fellow economists from Stanford University, Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley.  . . . .
What they reported is fascinating. About 90 percent of children born in 1940 ultimately exceeded their parents’ incomes. That is, almost everybody. . . . . However, for children born in 1970, only 61 percent earned more than their parents, and for those born in 1980, only 50 percent did.
That’s a sea change. It suggests that we’re already at the point where many in the present and next generations of younger Americans won’t live as well as their predecessors. If current trends continue, that certainly will be true.
You can see the consequences among millennials, those born from 1981 to 1996. Their squeezed incomes have forced them to rearrange their lives. They’re marrying later, buying homes later, having children later and — to save money — living longer with their parents. What’s also surprising is that the biggest losers seem to be the children of the middle and upper-middle classes, precisely those who are supposedly most protected against adverse changes, . . . .
“This seems to have become steadily harder to achieve for those born into middle-class families in particular from 1950 onward.”
Their explanation is simple. Those in middle and upper-middle classes have more to lose than, say, the poor. The incomes of the poor can’t drop much lower; indeed, with small gains, they can pass their parents’.
The result: The higher the parents’ incomes, the less likely that their children will match them. This is even true for the richest 1 percent of families, says economist Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute.
Just what has caused the slowdown in incomes is a tangled tale with the usual suspects: poor schools that produce poor workers; income inequality that stifles consumption spending; weak housing construction; inadequate innovation;  . . . .
[T]he broad trends seem reliable. The paradox is apparent. Today’s strong economy notwithstanding, there’s an underlying worry about the future.
Economic anxiety is increasingly an equal-opportunity affliction. No one can escape it. The poor worry about staying poor. The lower-middle class worries about paying bills or losing jobs. Now upper-middle class parents have joined the crowd, because their own well-being is often judged by how well their children are doing. That is the stubborn source of their angst.

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