The Withering of the Affluent: Though Americans See Upward Mobility as Their Birthright, That Assumption Faces Challenges
The future of affluence is not what it used to be. Americans have long believed—it’s part of our national character—that our economic well-being will constantly increase. We see ourselves as a striving, inventive, and pragmatic people destined for higher living standards. History is a continuum of progress, from Robert Fulton’s steamboat to Henry Ford’s assembly line to Bill Gates’ software. Every generation will live better than its predecessors.
Well, maybe not.
For millions of younger Americans—say, those 40 and under—living better than their parents is a pipe dream. They won’t. The threat to their hopes does not arise from an impending collapse of technological gains of the sort epitomized by the creations of Fulton, Ford, and Gates. These advances will almost certainly continue, and per capita income—the average for all Americans and a conventional indicator of living standards—will climb. Statistically, American progress will resume. The Great Recession will be a bump, not a dead end.
The trouble is that many of these gains will bypass the young. The increases that might have fattened their paychecks will be siphoned off to satisfy other groups and other needs. Today’s young workers will have to finance Social Security and Medicare for a rapidly growing cohort of older Americans. Through higher premiums for employer-provided health insurance, they will subsidize care for others. Through higher taxes and fees, they will pay to repair aging infrastructure (roads, bridges, water systems) and to support squeezed public services, from schools to police.