On Economic and Cultural Factors
In 2014 the Pew Research Center found that great differences exist between American and European Millennials’ attitudes toward hard work, success, and the influence of outside forces on the trajectories of their lives.
European Millennials are far more likely to believe that success is out of their hands than are American Millennials: 59 versus 43 percent. (The European measure includes persons surveyed in Germany, Italy, Greece, Poland, France, and Spain.) On the flip side, American Millennials are far more likely to believe that hard work and education are necessary for “getting ahead in life.”
Pew points out that other data suggest this is a cultural, not a generational issue, because across age groups in Europe, people are more likely to view themselves as “victims of fate,” whereas in the US people of all ages are more likely to see themselves as “masters of their fate.”
Pew’s findings suggest a correlation between economic conditions and the beliefs and outlooks of Millennials. For example, in southern European countries that were hit harder by the economic crisis of 2008–including Greece, Spain, and Italy–Millennials are far less satisfied with the direction in which their country is going than those in Germany, where the economy is relatively strong. Pew also points out that European countries in general have experienced a much slower rate of recovery than has the US.
Yet, the fact that differing beliefs in the amount of control one has over one’s life cross generational lines in Europe and the US suggests that the difference among Millennials is not simply caused by unequal rates of recovery from the economic crisis. Rather, long-standing cultural differences seem to also be at play.
In the US, the widespread belief in achieving success through hard work and education is known more commonly as “The American Dream.” Rooted historically in the founding of the nation as a democracy–one never ruled by monarchy–the idea that anyone, regardless of what class they are born into, or the color of their skin, can “make it” in the US continues to exert a strong ideological force on how we see ourselves and envision our futures. Which, when you think about it from a sociological standpoint, is really quite strange, given how intensely stratified and unequal our nation is along lines of race, class, and gender. Many sociologists thus argue that the American Dream is actually an ideological tool of oppression. It serves to keep people focused on their own individual shortcomings and potential, which obscures from our view the socially systemic problems that keep half of us in or near poverty, and create one of the greatest wealth divides in our nation’s history; and the racism and sexism that work against women and racial minorities.
In her book, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, journalist and honorary sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich argues not only that relentless positive thinking serves to distract us from social problems, but it also dangerously clouds our view of the potential pitfalls of believing we can achieve whatever we set out to do, both as individuals and as a nation.
Perhaps in Europe, where the sociological perspective first emerged, where critical theory was incubated, and where critical intellectuals have a greater connection to the public, a more realistic outlook on one’s personal agency relative to social forces exists.