Decline of “the American Dream?” Outlook Toward the Future Across Three Generations

Wednesday, 13 July 2016
Location: Hörsaal II (Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG))
Distributed Paper
Jeylan MORTIMER, University of Minnesota, Department of Sociology, USA
Arnaldo MONT'ALVAO, Rio de Janeiro State University, Sociology Department, Brazil
Pamela ARONSON, University of Michigan-Dearborn, USA
Inspired by the “American Dream,” generations of parents have encouraged their offspring to get ahead by working hard, achieving in school, and holding high aspirations for the future.  Women’s continuing advances in education and the labor force, and other feminist movement gains, have provided an increasingly positive climate for girls’ thinking about their futures. However, a deteriorating economic climate, particularly since the “Great Recession,” may have diminished the outlooks of many contemporary youth as they envision their futures.

We examine shifts in future orientations across three generations of Midwest American families.  Our unique data archive from the Youth Development Study includes 266 Generation 1 (G1)-Generation 2 (G2) parent-child dyads and 422 Generation 3 (G3) children. We assess within-family change over the past two decades in parental expectations about their children’s educational attainments and adolescents’ own future outlooks, with special attention to shifts in girls’ future orientations.  Using confirmatory factor analysis, paired sample t-tests, and within-family regression models, we examine adolescents’ aspirations for socioeconomic attainment, their perceptions of their parent’s expectations for them, the obstacles they perceive to their career progress, and more general optimism about the future. 

With controls for age, socioeconomic status, parental unemployment history, and parental work attitudes, we found that parents’ (comparing G1 and G2) educational aspirations for their children, and adolescent children’s (comparing G2 and G3) own socioeconomic aspirations, have increased.  Upward shifts across generations were especially pronounced among adolescent girls.  Compared to their mothers (G2), observed at about the same age, teenage girls (G3) also had more positive life course expectations in general, and anticipated less work-family conflict. We conclude that the “American Dream” is still alive---especially among adolescent girls, whose educational and occupational opportunities have expanded across generations, and whose optimistic outlooks are supported by the long-term successes of the women’s movement.