Decline of the American dream? Outlook toward the future across three generations of midwest families

Jeylan T. Mortimer, Arnaldo Mont'Alvao, Pamela Aronson

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13 Scopus citations


Expansion of higher education and long-term economic growth have fostered highaspirationsamongadolescents.Recently,however,deterioratinglaborforce opportunities, particularly since the “Great Recession,” and rising inequality have challenged the “American Dream.” To assess how parental and adolescent outlooks have evolved over time, 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 and Generation 2 parent-child dyads and 422 Generation 3 children. We assess change over two decades in parental expectations for their children's educational attainments (comparing G1 and G2) and in adolescents' socioeconomic aspirations, life course optimism, and anticipated work-family conflict (comparing G2 and G3). An initial between-families analysis examines aggregate change across generations; a second fixed-effects analysis assesses attitudinal differences between parents and children in the same families and the extent to which generational shifts in family circumstances and adolescents' educational performance account for change in adolescents' future orientations. We find that “millennial” adolescents had more positive outlooks than “Gen X” parents did at the same age. Generational increase in adolescent socioeconomic aspirations held even when socioeconomic origin, parent-child relationship quality, adolescent school performance, and other predictors were controlled. We find evidence that growing adolescent optimism across generations is attributable to rising parental educational expectations, increasing adolescent grades in school, and higher-quality parent-child relationships. We conclude that the “American Dream” is still alive for many contemporary parents and their adolescent children.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1403-1435
Number of pages33
JournalSocial Forces
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Correspondence to Jeylan T. Mortimer, email: The Youth Development Study was supported by grants, “Work Experience and Mental Health: A Panel Study of Youth,” from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (HD44138) and the National Institute of Mental Health (MH42843). We would like to thank Monica Kirkpatrick Johnson for her comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2019. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail:


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