Do millennials still believe in the American dream?

To some, this dismal outlook is either inevitable, or even positive, as Americans shift from their historically “expansive” view and embrace a more modest déclassé future. Rather than seek new worlds to conquer, or even hope to retain the accomplishments of prior generations, contemporary young Americans seem destined to confront a world stamped by ever narrowing opportunity, class distinction, and societal stagnation. Once a nation of competitive omnivores and carnivores, America could be turning more docile—a country of content, grazing herbivores.

Just such a diminished world view has already taken root in Japan, particularly among that country’s younger males. Growing up in a period of tepid economic growth, a declining labor market, and a loss of overall competitiveness, Japan’s male “herbivores” are more interested in comics, computer games, and Internet socializing than building a career or even the opposite sex. Marriage and family have increasingly little appeal to them, sentiments they share with most women their age.

This devolved future is widely embraced by both left and right. Libertarian-leaning economist Tyler Cowen identifies a permanent upper class, essentially those who command machines and particularly the software that runs them, while the masses, something like 85 percent of the population, need to adjust to lower living standards, and a diet made up largely of beans and rice.

This approach has appeal to the grandees of finance, who see in a diminishing American dream not only higher relative status for themselves but an opportunity to turn prospective property owners into rental serfs. Large equity funds have been particularly aggressive about buying foreclosed homes and renting them out, often at high rates, to economically distressed families.