Youth Desperation: The End of the American Dream?

Photo by Pars Sahin

Americans are suffering, and not as much as the young people of this country. In December 2021, the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy, released a disturbing report, “Council on Youth Mental Health Protection,” which paints a troubling picture of young people ages 3 to 17.

The report notes that in the decade between 2009 and 2019, “mental health problems were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes among young people” for one in five children. Digging deeper, he reports that 40% – or one in three – of “high school students…reported lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness”, 19% said they were “seriously considering attempting suicide” (up 36% over the decade) and 16% “planned suicide in the past year” (up 44%). than in 2020 – and that was before the Covid pandemic.

Desperation has become an endemic feature of postmodern American life and signals the end of what has long been called “the American dream.” “One of the defining characteristics of the ‘American dream’ is the ideal that children have a higher standard of living than their parents,” notes Harvard’s Opportunity Insights group. He then adds:

We find that absolute mobility rates have fallen from around 90% for children born in 1940 to 50% for children born in the 1980s. Absolute income mobility has declined across the income distribution, the largest declines affecting middle-class families.

And for children born in the 2000s? Their future in terms of mobility, of achieving a higher standard of living than their parents, looks increasingly bleak.


Almost a century ago, Pres. Herbert Hoover chose as his 1928 presidential campaign slogan a simple promise: “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” He captured the spirit of the nation’s optimistic possibilities, of social mobility that envisioned ordinary white Americans living a better and more comfortable middle-class life.

The stock market crash of October 24, 1929 triggered a process known as the Great Depression. Hoover thought the growing crisis was part of a passing recession and took a hands-off approach, refusing to involve the federal government in key economic issues such as price regulation or currency valuation. As the Gilder Lehrman Institute notes, “[Hoover] was inclined to give indirect aid to banks or local public works projects, but he refused to use federal money for direct aid to citizens, believing that unemployment would lower public morale. Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 and died in office in 1945 as World War II drew to a close.

In The Riches of This Land: The True and Untold Story of America’s Middle ClassJim Tankersley describes what he calls the “golden age” of post-war prosperity:

What they are [middleclass people] aspire to security. The ability to own a home and look after, save enough to retire, support a family, and give any kids they might have (and certainly not sell) the opportunity and the resources to enjoy a life at least as successful as theirs – and hopefully a better one.

This sentiment became known as the American Dream, something shared not only by white workers but, over time, by African Americans and immigrants.

Some scholars trace the concept of the “American Dream” to the founding of the nation. Jim Cullen, in The American dreamargues that the

Declaration of Independence prefigures the Dream in its appeal that “certain truths are self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Search for Happiness “. Going further, Cullen notes that Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in Americaanticipated the Dream with its notion of “the charm of anticipated success”.

However, the term “American Dream” appears to have been first used by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 novel, America’s Epic. It is “this dream of a country in which life should be better, richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunities for everyone according to their abilities or achievements,” he wrote. He then goes into more detail:

Its realization is not merely a dream of automobiles and high salaries, but a dream of social order in which every man and woman can achieve the fullest stature of which he is naturally capable and be recognized by others for what they are, whatever the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position…

The American Dream…a dream of being able to grow to the fullest development as man and woman, unhindered by the barriers that had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders that developed for the benefit of classes rather than for mere human beings of any class.

In an American torn apart by the Great Depression and World War II, hope kept the dream alive.

The American Dream became a reality for many during the post-World War II era, a period in which American capitalism experienced phenomenal economic growth, giving rise to globalization and the modern consumer society. For ordinary working or middle class Americans, the period saw unprecedented wage increases as well as key fringe benefits like unemployment compensation, pension plans and social insurance programs. Additionally, the GI Bill allowed urban tenants to become private suburban landlords and see high school graduates go on to college; covenants and other policies barred African Americans from much of the postwar prosperity.

Beginning in the early 1970s, two factors began to erode the American Dream – one social, the other economic. The social dislocation of the 1960s was marked by the civil rights movement, protests against the Vietnam War, the sex counterculture, drugs and rock-and-roll, second-wave feminism, homosexuals and consumer activists led by Ralph Nader.

Simultaneously, US economic growth began to stagnate. Wages were flattening; “stagflation” was setting in; declining union membership; and, in 1971, Pres. Richard Nixon decoupled the dollar from the gold standard and imposed wage and price controls. Compounding the domestic crisis, an international oil crisis fostered global instability. All have made American life more uncertain. As the Vietnam War waned, the Dream of Prosperity began to erode.


Desperation has become an endemic feature of the erosion of the American Dream. Since the recovery after World War II, home ownership symbolized the realization of the American dream. A 2022 poll found that nearly three-quarters (74%) of Americans rank owning a home above career, family and college as a sign of prosperity.

Yet the dream may be fading as the decline in home ownership suggests. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports a 38% drop in such purchases in 2022 compared to last year – the lowest rate since 1987. It also estimates that around 2.5 million households – or 15 % – of those who buy a first home will be shut out of the market this year. Does this drop in first-time buyers suggest a problem that could be systemic, the end of the American dream?

One of the most glaring expressions of this erosion is the worsening income and wealth inequality among Americans. A study by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Williams College (MA) of the compensation of thousands of American business executives between 1993 and 2013 concluded that “recent trends in globalization have increased inequality in the United States by disproportionately increasing top incomes”.

These results are corroborated by other studies. For example, a 2015 report by the Economic Policy Institute found that executive compensation increased by 997% between 1978 and 2014, while the average compensation of a production and non-supervisory worker in the private sector n only increased by 10.9%.

In 2015, the Pew Center calculated that high-income households saw their wages increase by 47% between 1970 and 2014. Middle-income households enjoyed a median gain of just 34% over this window, while low-income households posted a 28% gain. reports, “More than 20% of our nation’s income goes to the top 1%. The share of the richest 1% in the wealth of our country is approaching 40%. Our top 0.1% hold roughly the same share of our wealth as our bottom 90%.

The Covid pandemic has only deepened inequalities – and increased desperation among young people. The CDC found that in 2021 (the latest data), more than a third (37%) of high school students “experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic” and more than four in ten (44 %) said they “felt consistently sad or hopeless over the past year.”

Worse, the CDC also found that nearly three in ten young people (29%) said a parent or other adult in their household had lost their job. In addition, more than half (55%) said they had experienced emotional abuse from a parent or other adult at home, including swearing, insulting or putting the student down – and 11% been physically abused by a parent or other adult at home. home, including hitting, beating, kicking or physically hurting the student.

The American dream seems to be fading and the nation’s future does not look very bright. The desperation of young people may well be a symptom of the deepening resentment that fuels the growing right-wing, nationalist – pro-Trump movement. Not treating the symptom only makes things worse.