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Elusive American Dream or Incredible Parenting Failure?

Oh dear. The New York Times promised in a headline to show us how elusive the American Dream is for this generation of college graduates. Instead, we see a portrait — a cautionary tale, really — of how kids who are never exposed to risk, are never expected to do for themselves, and have never acted outside the confines of a structured program (pre-paid registration required!) will turn out.

Summary: not good.

The Times visits with Scott Nicholson, a Grafton, Mass., 24-year-old who graduated from Colgate and can’t find a job. Well, he can’t find one that he wants. He’s turning down an insurance company, which offered him $40,000 for a very entry-level position. His brother’s making $75,000 per year. That’s more like what Scott has in mind.

Scott’s living at home with his parents, who don’t charge him rent. They’re paying for his cellphone. He does odd jobs for a little spending money.

Scott’s father and grandfather, who, incidentally, paid for all of Scott’s college — Scott’s not one of many, many new graduates already saddled with unimaginable student loan debt — didn’t have this kind of struggle when starting out their careers. And I suppose this is where we’re supposed to see an enormous shift in the history of work in the U.S. and how The American Dream is no longer possible for Scott and his peers. The grandfather got a job from an old army buddy. The father, likewise, was hired by a friend. The two took a chance on jobs, worked hard and turned them into careers. Son Scott? Nah. That’s not really his style.

See, he’s entitled to more because he:

“worked hard through high school to get myself into the college I did,” Scott said, “and then I worked hard through college to graduate with the grades and degree that I did to position myself for a solid job.” (He majored in political science and minored in history.)

What’s interesting is that Scott knows he’s being coddled, ahem, supported.

“As frustrated as I get now, and I never intended to live at home, I’m in a good situation in a lot of ways,” Scott said. “I have very little overhead and no debt, and it is because I have no debt that I have any sort of flexibility to look for work. Otherwise, I would have to have a job, some kind of full-time job.”

He knows he’s privileged. Which is why you want to take Scott by the shoulders and shake him a little. Live it up, Scott! Go try something new! Take a chance. Follow a dream. For you, baby, everything’s going to work out!

And that’s what makes this piece so scary. And why it has nothing to do with the American Dream.

I’m not a baby-boomer (too young) and I wasn’t raised by baby-boomers (smidgen too old) but my and my kids’ lives are certainly impacted by the structures and expectations and habits of the baby-boomer parenting generation. While some of what we’ve inherited is pretty cool — kids’ menus and car seats, for instance — the part where we micro-manage the kids from cradle to law school, fear for their lives on a daily/hourly basis, and believe that our healthy and smart 24-year-olds with job offers still need our shelter and cellphone money, that’s what I can see has no pay-off for the child, the parent or society.

To even call the American Dream elusive for Scott is to miss the point of the American Dream, which doesn’t say you’re entitled to do better than your parents from the comfort of their living room. It’s that the possibility is there for those willing to walk out Mom’s front door, get in a crappy car and go to work.

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Photo: media.thestar.com

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