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Robert J. Samuelson’s recently published essay, The Rise of Downward Mobility, raises important questions for America at the macro-level and for Americans at the micro-level.

Downward Mobility

Samuelson presents historical data to back his claim that “the real world isn’t playing according to script.” What script is that? It’s ‘The American Dream’ (or at least one rendition of it) that kids will be better off economically vis-à-vis their parents—with better jobs, more income, greater life opportunities, and enriched lifestyle.

“That’s conventional wisdom,” Samuelson asserts, and it’s time to “ditch it.”

Drawing on research conducted by Chetty, et al., Samuelson chronicles a decidedly downward macro-trend. “About 90% of children born in 1940 ultimately exceeded their parents’ incomes…. However, for children born in 1970, only 61% earned more than their parents, and for those born in 1980, only 50%.”

Samuelson writes persuasively about the impact of downward mobility on two groups—among Millennials (that is, children born through the early ‘80’s through the mid-‘90s) and ‘Kids of the 1%.’ Many Millennials are “marrying later, buying homes later, having children later” and (aghast!) are “living longer with their parents.” What’s more—according to a recent Brookings Institution study—those trends apply to Millennials of the middle- and –upper-middle classes.

What about the top of the income stratum? It’s the very same story. Samuelson cites an American Enterprise Institute study that found that children born into the 1% in 1980 (at the very end of the Gen X epoch) have about a 1% chance as adults of occupying the 1% economic stratum!

Many families have faced (and will face) a knotty micro-reality: their children may not be able to provide their kids with the range of advantages they experienced in youth.

What does it all mean? Samuelson believes that America is experiencing an unexpected economic leveling. With so much attention given to income/wealth inequality, it’s surprising to find such widespread economic anxiety. Samuelson calls it an “equal-opportunity affliction.”

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While there are ample reasons to fret about the situation Samuelson describes, is the portrait he paints really all bad? My son, Frank Jr., a Gen X’er and corporate executive, thinks not.

“Is the goal for my kids to make more money than I do?” No, he says. “The important issues are finding meaningful work and having enough free time to focus on things they enjoy. At issue is making enough money to accomplish those objectives.”

He’s right, of course—at least in one way. “America the Beautiful” shouldn’t be a singular narrative about individual wealth. Indeed, Samuelson says that income/wealth inequality contributes to downward economic mobility. Having said that, many families have faced (and will face) a knotty micro-reality: their children may not be able to provide their kids with the range of advantages they experienced in youth.

That’s a mouthful and it raises big questions. What are parents doing to respond? Indeed, has the possibility of downward economic mobility even sunk into the American psyche?

If there’s a silver lining regarding what Samuelson describes (and I think there is), then it’s what Progressives recognize and my son described earlier. Success can’t be measured exclusively in economic terms. Wealth doesn’t automatically bring happiness, fulfillment, contentment or any of the other things that we often align with “living a good life.” “Good” has to be figured out, one person after the other, often with sweat and almost always with a lot of help.

The question, though, is how to put that thinking into practice. Nearly twenty years ago my colleagues and I baked it into an undergraduate program we were designing at the time. Part of the program’s architecture is what we call “The Five Questions.” Who am I? What do I value? What is my worldview? How do I learn? How well do my personal and professional lives connect?

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Answers to those questions don’t come with a paycheck. They never have. They never will.

Frank Fear