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The Old American Dream Is Dead: What Will Replace It?

With last week's grim jobs numbers and a general sense that the recovery might be wavering, experts are pondering what sort of economy will finally emerge from the economic maelstrom and what sort of future young people now coming of age will be able to dream of. And strangely, a few are turning to the arts to illustrate their visions of the reality young people will face when they enter their middle adulthood. So what works do they offer as metaphors for the economic story we'll live through?

A Tale of Two Cities and Little Shop of Horrors.
Over at the HBR blogs CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp, Jeff Stibel, is arguing that Charles Dickens would understand our contemporary economy which, much like the England of the author's time, "borders on schizophrenic." With both corporate profits and unemployment increasing, Stibel predicts a future for today's young people that's very different from the broadly available middle class prosperity their parents dreamed of. In this new reality, the economic prospects of some diverge ever more widely from those better prepared for the workplaces of tomorrow:

To ensure strong profits, corporations are cutting out the middle layers of management -- the middle-class. In their place, they are hiring at the very low end and promoting at the high end. Senior management compensation is up nearly 25 percent this year ($9M for the average S&P 500 CEO), to levels higher than in pre-recession days, according to executive compensation research firm Equilar.
On the other side, we have job growth coming in at the bottom of the pyramid, mostly minimum wage and temporary positions. Take last month's job creation, for example. Out of the 260,000 jobs created in April, a whopping 60,000 jobs came from one company: McDonald's. There is nothing wrong with flipping burgers for a living, but it will not pull us out of a recession.... Without middle-class jobs, our society will enter into a "Stagnant Age" of two classes: rich and poor.
Stibel's is a pretty depressing vision of the future of the American dream but a familiar one. But over on Business Insider, Walter Russell Mead, a professor at Bard College, is painting a stranger picture of the "American Dream 3.0." What does it have in common with a musical about a singing, man-eating potted plant? Like Audrey, the owner of the flower shop in the midst of the urban jungle, we're all going to end up pining for a suburban lifestyle that is beyond our reach.

Mead's post is long and involved (but very much worth a read). In essence, he argues that the economic trends and government entitlements that supported the 20th century idyll of a suburban, nuclear family are under intense pressure and breaking down. The American Dream 3.0 (1.0 was an earlier idea of America as a nation of farmers and small business people) will look a lot different:

The suburban consumption based nuclear family is increasingly under stress; family budgets and time are increasingly on the edge.... One suspects we may see a return to multi-generational, multi-use middle class houses in the American future. (There look to be plenty of low-price McMansions available for conversion.) Mom and Dad may telecommute as independent subcontractors. Dick and Jane will help Mom and Dad with the family business from the time they are able to refill the printer tray. This isn't some form of Dickensian exploitation; Dick and Jane are pulling their weight in the family and learning how the world works. Grandma and Grandpa may also help out, and contribute their bit to the family expenses -- and to child care.
Despite starting his discussion with murderous flora, Mead actually ends up in a more cheerful place than Stibel where families pitch in together to create a new sort of lifestyle that offers obvious psychological benefits (and perhaps some ecological ones as well). While Stibel's vision is all about the fabric of society pulling apart, Mead imagines us pulling together for mutual benefit. But is this plausible?

What new version of the American Dream do you think will emerge for young people once the dust clears from the Great Recession -- Dickensian horror, communal idyll or something else entirely?

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user Seattle Municipal Archives, CC 2.0)