Unequal opportunity and limited futures

My latest for the Brooklyn Quarterly is on opportunity hoarding, inherited wealth, and what it means for the future of our kids:

The gulf separating the current generation of younger adults – born in the 1970s or later – and their baby boomer predecessors is well documented. Memes of “Old Economy Steve” describe a baby boomer dreamland of $400 college tuitions, minimum wage jobs that paid enough to buy a house, and minimal student loan debt. This is the long-gone fantasy that David Brooks and other baby boomer pundits espousing the virtues of American meritocracy inhabited as youth. This was an era when it made little difference where you came from because access to cheap and good education made it easier to get where you were going – whether to get an affordable college education or a well-paying job that did not require one. The fate of the next generation, however, relies on how heavily parents are able to invest in the expensive credentials now required to purchase a professional future.

Their offspring are the first generation of Americans to be born into an entrenched meritocracy, one structured on what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the social alchemy that turns class privilege into merit.” In an entrenched meritocracy, advantages conferred by birth are marketed as achievements, but these achievements – a good education, a prestigious-but-unpaid or low-paying entry-level job – are only possible for those who have the means to afford them. The cycle repeats itself, with a wealthy and educated elite conferring their own advantages onto their children.

There is no room, in this scenario, for those who cannot pay the price to educational entry. Broadly speaking, there is no room, period. Opportunity hoarding has become the pastime of the elite, with education used as a proxy for rejection based on “merit,” and “merit” redefined as how many prestigious accolades one is able to purchase to gain access to education.

Read the whole thing, Generations Left Behind, at the Brooklyn Quarterly.

Speaking of Brooklyn, I’ll be there November 14-15 giving a talk at the Creative Time Summit on debt, wages, and lost opportunity in the creative economy.

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