Choosing Our Future: A Story of Opportunity in America
Irwin Kirsch, Henry Braun, Mary Louise Lennon, and Anita Sands
The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences. . . We cannot avoid this period; we are in it now.
Winston Churchill, House of Commons, November 12, 1936 119
In 2007, ETS published a report titled America's Perfect Storm. That report focused on the confluence of three powerful forces and their projected impact on our country over the next several decades. Those forces comprised significant gaps in the distribution of skills, economic restructuring driven by both technological innovation and globalization, and sweeping demographic changes. As the authors concluded, "If we maintain our present policies, it is very likely that we will continue to grow apart, with greater inequality in wages and wealth, and increasing social and political polarization."120
Some eight years later, we continue to see the effects of this storm all around us, and the clouds gathering on the horizon are ever more menacing. The economic restructuring referenced in that earlier report has accelerated and has affected millions more Americans – those who are working and those who are not. The gaps between those with the human and social capital to thrive and those without continue to widen and are associated with differences in a range of life outcomes, including marriage patterns, the characteristics of the neighborhoods in which they live, the availability of good schools and supportive social services in their communities, their trust in others, and prospects for their children. The transmission of opportunity – whether pathways are open or closed for the next generation – is most concerning of all. We do not see ourselves as a country where the circumstances of birth should be strongly predictive of an individual's opportunity to accumulate human and social capital. But evidence is growing that this is increasingly becoming the new American reality.
Changes in Perceptions of Economic Opportunity, 1987-2012
Changes in Perceptions of Economic Opportunity, 1987-2012
Source: Leslie McCall, "Political and Policy Responses to Problems of Inequality and Opportunity: Past, Present, and Future." In The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspective, eds., Irwin Kirsch and Henry Braun (New York: Springer, 2016). Author's analysis of the General Social Survey.
Line graph showing changes in real wage levels of full-time U.S. male workers by education from 1963 to 2012. Lines show wages at five levels of education: greater than a bachelor's degree, bachelor's degree, some college, high school graduate, and less than high school. The line for male workers with more than a bachelor's degree shows the largest increase in wages, followed by the line for men with a bachelor's degree. The lines for those with less than a high school education, high school graduates, and those with some college shows that their wages rose from 1964 though the mid-1970s, fell through the 1980s and early 1990s, and have remained relatively flat. Those with less than a high school education suffered the greatest loss in wages since the mid-1970s peak.
The cumulative effects of the profound economic and social changes over the past few decades have shaken American optimism and faith in the American Dream. In the midst of what can be termed the Age of Anxiety, many feel powerless, resigned, and troubled, worried about not only their futures but those of their children and grandchildren. During such times, it is natural to want to fall back on what worked in the past, back to the times of promise for many (although not all) after World War II. But that past is a poor roadmap for the future, as has been true at other points in our history. Abraham Lincoln characterized the challenges faced by the country over 150 years ago, saying, "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew."121
Given the rapid pace and scope of technological change, the impact of increased globalization, and the social and economic challenges that confront our nation today, we too need to think anew and look forward. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee note in The Second Machine Age, the real questions we must address go beyond economic growth: "Will we choose to have information widely disseminated or tightly controlled? Will our prosperity be broadly shared? What will be the nature and magnitude of rewards we give to our innovators? Will we build vibrant relationships and communities? Will everyone have the opportunities to discover, create and enjoy the best of life?"122 Although we are fortunate to live in a country where we have the freedom of choice, we are not free from choice. And the choices we face are profound. America's future will depend not only on the choices we make, but also the urgency and persistence with which we work together to take the actions consistent with those choices.
America's future will depend not only on the choices we make, but also the urgency and persistence with which we work together to take the actions consistent with those choices.
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119 The Churchill Society, London. http://www.churchill-society-london.org.uk/Locusts.html.
120 Irwin Kirsch, Henry Braun, Kentaro Yamamoto and Andrew Sum, America's Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation's Future (Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 2007), http://www.ets.org/Media/Education_Topics/pdf/AmericasPerfectStorm.pdf, http://www.ets.org/Media/Education_Topics/perfectStorm/perfectStorm.html.
121 Abraham Lincoln Second Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/202180.
122 Brynjolfsson and McAfee, Second Machine Age.