Troubling signs for the opportunity society

by Ryan Streeter on February 17, 2014. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

“Between the 1980s and the 2000s alone, mobility among young adults dropped by 41 percent.”

That’s from David Brooks’ column a week ago, which I consider one of the more important distillations of the American challenge that we’ve seen in awhile.

We are (a lot) less mobile than we were a generation ago, and it seems that a loss of confidence in the opportunity society is a big part of the reason.

We’ve always thought of ourselves as an aspirational society, but the data points suggest things are changing.

Brooks cites the following:

Fertility rates, a good marker of confidence, are down.

As late as 2003, Americans were more likely than Italians, Brits and Germans to say the “free market economy is the best system on which to base the future of the world.” By 2010, they were slightly less likely than those Europeans to embrace capitalism.

[S]ince 1988, the percentage of Americans who call themselves members of the “have-nots” has doubled.

Today’s young people are more likely to believe success is a matter of luck, not effort, than earlier generations.

In 1950, 20 percent of Americans moved in a given year. Now, it’s around 12 percent.

Brooks borrows a term from an academic to describe a large swath of today’s younger generation: the Precariat. They are “hunkered down, insecure, risk averse, relying on friends and family but without faith in American possibilities. This fatalism is historically uncharacteristic of America.”

On this topic, are we beyond economic explanations and into the realm of culture?