The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

48 percent of millennials think the American dream is dead. Here’s why.

When Harvard's Institute of Politics asked 18- to 29-year-olds if they considered the American dream to be alive or dead, the result was an even split. About half said they considered the American dream alive and well for them personally. About half said it was dead as a doornail.

Harvard also asked millennials about a number of other issues, too; people in that age bracket like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders more than other Republicans and Democrats, for example. But this bit of data on the American Dream stood out.

Particularly in light of data released on Thursday by Pew Research. Pew found that the beating heart of the American dream, the middle class, has shrunk significantly over the past 40 years.

The middle class is now smaller than the upper and lower economic classes, in Pew's analysis, and holds less aggregate income than the upper class.

No wonder, then, that young Americans are skeptical of their ability to get ahead. Pew's data also shows that the age range looked at in the Harvard IoP survey saw the biggest drop in income status since 1971, with the biggest gain of any demographic group going to those 65 and over.

Within that American dream data was a noticeable split. Those with a college degree thought that the American dream was alive and well at a rate 16 percentage points higher than those who weren't in college or who had never attended. Non-college-graduates also saw broad decreases in income in Pew's analysis, with the research firm writing that "[t]hose Americans without a college degree stand out as experiencing a substantial loss in economic status."

We've known for some time that people with college degrees have done better in recent years. But two threats still exist. The first is student loan debt, which continues to be a massive burden to recent college graduates. The second is wage stagnation. In analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, for example, wages for young college graduates have been dropping since the year 2000. The trend is more widespread and older than that, but this number certainly might make a new graduate pessimistic.

The idea of the American dream is somewhat nebulous, relating mostly to the idea of the equal opportunity for economic success. Half of people under the age of 30 are skeptical of that idea, and even those with a college degree might still see clouds on the horizon. The results of Harvard's survey aren't surprising, even if we might think they should be.