p>In the midst of all the disturbing, depressing data in the new Statistical Abstract of the United States just released by the U.S. Census Bureau you can still find nuggets of encouragement and reassurance.
For me, the most significant (and welcome) change noted in this report may involve the altered attitudes of young people. Asked to identify their “primary personal objectives,” 79% of college freshman in 1970 described their goal as “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” By 2005, 75% of the incoming students instead focused on material advancement—saying that “becoming financially very well off” represented their top aim.
Some observers may see in this change a lamentable decline in “idealism.” Why is it a good thing, they will ask, if students concentrate on getting ahead in material terms rather than focusing on philosophical explorations?
For one thing, the presence of more practical, less ruminative collegians reflects the fact that young people from every economic class now attend universities or community colleges. Close to half of all high school graduates now enroll in institutions of higher education (including 41% of traditionally disadvantaged African-Americans) – an increase of more than three-to-one in the percentage of those who pursue advanced learning compared to the famous baby boom generation. When I attended university (Graduating Class of 1969), college still amounted to an elite opportunity for the relatively privileged few: today, young Americans from every economic class and every ethnic group get the opportunity to advance their education (even though they may go deeply in debt to do so).
In other words, the rich kids who represented the bulk of college students in 1970 could afford to concentrate on “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” and to explore the profound glories of meditation, marijuana, the new left, and radical forms of sexual expression. Many of the adventurous activists and idealists and intellectual adventurers of thirty and forty years ago could explore alternative modes of living—engaging in all sorts of trapeze and high-wire stunts-- without worrying about careers or practicalities because they were protected by a safety net provided by Daddy’s money. Today’s students, in a far more fiercely competitive economy and with bigger dept incurred in pursuing their education, naturally focus on their financial future.