Identifying a Generational Zeitgeist?

Sometimes you discover something completely unexpected about how people perceive the world.

Back in February, students in my globalization course read the items below and wrote a response to “Is global trade a zero sum game — a process that causes some people to get poorer while others get richer? Why?”

  • Daron Acemoglu, “Economic Inequality and Globalization,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 13, 1 (Fall/Winter 2006).
  • Joseph Stiglitz, “The Globalization of Our Discontent,” Project Syndicate, 5 December 2017.
  • Branko Milanovic, “Why the Global 1% and the Asian Middle Class Have Gained the Most from Globalization,” Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 13 May 2016.

Nearly the entire class wrote that global trade is a zero sum game. In class, students advocated for trade barriers.

Last month, students responded to “Should European states close their borders to migrants? Why?” after reading these items:

  • Patrick Kingsley, “Migration to Europe Is Down Sharply So Is It Still a ‘Crisis’?” The New York Times, 27 June 2018.
  • Dan Ruetenik, “Keeping the Lights On for Migrants,” The New York Times, 21 December 2016.
  • Eduardo Porter and Karl Russell, Migrants Are on the Rise Around the World, and Myths About Them Are Shaping Attitudes, The New York Times, 20 June 2018.
  • Somini Sengupta, “Heat, Hunger and War Force Africans Onto a ‘Road on Fire’,” The New York Times, 15 December 2016.

Most students wrote that European states should not close their borders. During class discussion, I pointed out the logical inconsistency with their responses to February’s question on global trade. Labor is an internationally-mobile economic good.

For one of the last assignments in the course, I asked “Has the American dream been outsourced? Why?” and gave students links to:

  • Zoe Chace, “Act One: Party in the USA,” This American Life, episode 600, 28 October 2016.
  • Suketu Mehta, “Go East, Young American,” The New York Times, 21 April 2017.
  • Sandip Roy, “Outsourcing the Dream?” Dispatches from Kolkata, KALW, 3 March 2017.

Every student wrote that the American dream had been outsourced. They believed that opportunities for success were greater outside of the USA. In class, I asked them how they planned to act on this belief. Those who wanted to remain within the country after college said that they would reduce their consumption and living standards to compensate for lower incomes. Others said they were learning languages, traveling, and researching citizenship requirements to create options for a life abroad.

On average, these students have socioeconomic backgrounds that are above, and in some cases far above, the USA’s mean. College attendance predicts that they are unlikely to suffer drastic, permanent downward mobility. Yet they seemed to have a great deal of fear and anxiety about their country’s future.