Three broad factors appear to be driving much of the weak income performance in the United States. First, educational attainment in the United States has risen far more slowly than in much of the industrialized world over the last three decades, making it harder for the American economy to maintain its share of highly skilled, well-paying jobs.
Americans between the ages of 55 and 65 have literacy, numeracy and technology skills that are above average relative to 55- to 65-year-olds in rest of the industrialized world, according to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international group. Younger Americans, though, are not keeping pace: Those between 16 and 24 rank near the bottom among rich countries, well behind their counterparts in Canada, Australia, Japan and Scandinavia and close to those in Italy and Spain.Some of this difference may be that the rest of the world has caught up and passed us. I compare the education that I received in the 1960s and 1970s, and what seems to be the education that many of my students have received in the last decade or so, and I am frankly saddened.
I suspect more important than the educational system inputs are the family structure inputs. When I was growing up in Santa Monica (a much more working class community than today), kids from divorced homes were pretty exceptional. Divorce was somewhat shameful. There were parents with serious alcohol problems, I am sure, but that was also somewhat shameful. The serious substance abuse problems that are now pretty much the norm among adults would have been unimaginable, at least in a middle class community.