Our children’s future no longer looks so bright

Our children’s futures have been heavily mortgaged. That’s true even if the economy returns in a few years to “full employment” (say, 5 percent unemployment) and past productivity gains (about 1.7 percent annually since 1966) continue. If today’s weak recovery persists, the outlook darkens. Unemployment will remain high, say 7 percent to 9 percent. Wage increases will remain depressed. Young workers will have trouble finding jobs to develop the skills and contacts that lead to better jobs. Productivity growth might falter.

America is a competitive society. It’s not guaranteed that children achieve their parents’ relative economic status: The children of parents in the richest 20 percent won’t automatically stay in the richest 20 percent. Some children advance; some fall. But if overall incomes are rising, even those who don’t advance relatively often have higher absolute incomes than their parents. Studies by the Pew Economic Mobility Project confirm this. Two-thirds of Americans have higher incomes than their parents; half of those either ranked in the same spot of the economic distribution as their parents or lower.

Generational gains tempered individual setbacks. We may now lose this comforting cushion. Our leaders might try to avoid that by boosting economic growth, controlling health spending and trimming benefits for the elderly. But we aren’t sure how to do the first and lack the political will to do the second and third. The future is never entirely predictable, but downward mobility is not just a scary sound bite. It’s a real possibility.