No, the odds are you're really not going to get very rich, or even moderately rich, although you'll probably go to your deathbed telling yourself you will.
The chasm between what ordinary Americans make in income and what the top 1-2% are making is wider than at any time in the last 80 years, with the caustic effects of that disparity rapidly separating us into a two-tier society right before our eyes. Education, once the great leveler of our society since the time of the GI Bill, is now a divisive scythe, combining with the extraordinary social and employment benefits of staggering wealth passed from generation to generation, and cementing in stone the reign of a perpetual, modern-day aristocracy. While the vast majority of Americans consigned to statistical "median" incomes struggle to keep up with the costs of education, housing, child care and health care, a small but not insignificant contingent of the uber-wealthy possessing wealth far beyond most of our capacity to imagine methodically rigs the tools of government to preserve its status and serve its interests.
But for all of the stark evidence in front of us, of Presidential candidates prostrating themselves before venal and ruthless Billionaires or Wall Street bankers, of one half of the entire country's political spectrum practically acknowledging that it exists only to serve the very rich, Americans don't rebel. They shrug their shoulders and accept their lot, confident that one day they too will reach that shining city on the hill. Then they go back to toiling in their stagnant-wage jobs while the things they took for granted, like a one-income household, affordable college education, a secure retirement, fade into a dim memory. They go back to their glowing electrical gadgets in their purses and pockets and convince themselves they are wealthier than they really are. And they continue to elect politicians who perpetuate that mythology, or they find excuses not to vote at all.
Recently, studies by two independent research teams (each led by an author of this article) found that Americans across the economic spectrum did indeed severely misjudge the amount of upward mobility in society. The data also confirmed the psychological utility of this mistake: Overestimating upward mobility was self-serving for rich and poor people alike. For those who saw themselves as rich and successful, it helped justify their wealth. For the poor, it provided hope for a brighter economic future.Americans' childlike faith in the "American Dream" is drilled into them in political speeches, in popular culture, movies and television, and through social relationships. "Keeping up with the Joneses" is just a symptom of the overarching, biologically-rooted imperative to succeed, to prove oneself worthy in the eyes of our peers. The American Dream is the narrative we've created to sustain that.
As highlighted in the New York Times article linked above, research from Cornell University confirms the enduring misperceptions Americans have about their own ability to get ahead. From the abstract of "Building A More Mobile America, One Quintile At A Time:
"A core tenet of the American ethos is that there is considerable economic mobility. Americans seem willing to accept vast financial inequalities as long as they believe that everyone has the opportunity to succeed. We examined whether people’s beliefs about the amount of economic mobility in the contemporary United States conform to reality."The short answer is that Americans are largely clueless about economic mobility. Respondents in the Cornell survey were asked to predict the economic mobility of random individuals assigned to a particular income "quintile." The results, when compared to real-world US data on economic mobility, showed that Americans consistently overestimate people's ability to advance economically out of poverty, or indeed out of any economic strata to a higher "bracket."
More research done under the same leadership at the University of Illinois illustrates why it is so hard to overcome this willful blindness: it is rooted in our own deeply-held self-image. In that study, aptly titled "Americans Overestimate Social Class Mobility,"
[P]articipants were asked to estimate the ease of moving up the economic ladder. This time, however, they were also asked to estimate upward mobility for people who were similar to them “in terms of goals, abilities, talents and motivations.” In this case, respondents were even more likely to overestimate upward mobility. We believe unduly in our own capacity to move up the economic ladder, and these beliefs increase our mobility overestimates more generally.The Illinois study should be required reading for Americans who want to understand why income inequality matters. The authors first establish that for the vast majority of Americans the dream of social mobility is an illusion fostered by the culture, an illusion now directly at odds with reality:
The United States is faced with record levels of income inequality and one of the lowest rates of actual social mobility among industrial nations (Burkhauser et al., 2009, Fiske and Markus, 2012 and Piketty and Saez, 2001).* *
Americans place significant hope on the American Dream—the promise that individuals, from any sector of society, have an equal opportunity to become better educated, earn more money, and obtain whatever job they desire. These beliefs in social class mobility are widespread, frequently referred to during political speeches (Obama, 2014), evoked in contemporary popular fiction and cinema (Fitzgerald, 1925), and are a core right referred to in historical government documents (i.e., the Bill of Rights).* *
The disconnect between actual economic conditions on the one hand and beliefs in the American Dream on the other suggests that Americans may be unaware of the actual levels of social class mobility in society.
These data suggest that Americans are unaware of the actual economic structure of society and of how changes in individual economic conditions shape their own life outcomes,One cause of Americans' self-delusion about their mobility is the constant reassurance by society's institutions to make us believe that the system works fairly for all:
Americans benefit from overestimates of social class mobility because they bolster widely held American ideals of meritocracy and equality of opportunity (Durkheim, 1933, Fiske and Markus, 2012 and Weber, 1930). Thus, overestimates of class mobility satisfy the need to believe that the societal status of the self and others is determined fairly and justly.The study specifically finds that wealthier individuals tend to bathe themselves in a narrative that they are deserving of their own success:
Specifically, the motivation to believe that one's elevated position in society is both fairly achieved and possible for all Americans will lead individuals from relatively upper-class backgrounds to make larger overestimates of social class mobility.One of the more significant findings is that political liberals are far more skeptical of class mobility than conservatives. The article attributes this disparity to the conservative philosophy that regards all social mobility as "merit-based." The shorthand for this assumption is not explored in the article, but it would seem to dovetail with conservatives feelings' about the innate worth of certain races of people. It also shows why income inequality will never really resonate with Republicans or conservatives. Their perception of "merit" by definition includes themselves as the "meritorious" ones. So they can't help but believe that "hard work" inevitably leads to wealth, because to face the reality--that attainment of substantial wealth is most often based on social status with a fair helping of luck--would require admitting that their own self-image may be a lie.
The upshot of all of this is that enacting policies to solve a problem Americans are psychologically unprepared to recognize will be a constant uphill battle, even as Americans continue to allow themselves to be herded like cattle to the guillotine of economic stagnation. Much like organized Labor has been steadily whittled away, the "American Dream" continues to suffer the death of a thousand cuts, all of them nearly imperceptible. It's only looking back over time when one realizes what has been lost. And all the while, new generations keep arriving, staring back at us, bewildered at our concerns. For them, this is sadly the norm, the way things have always been:
Taken together, these sets of studies suggest that belief in the American dream is woefully misguided when compared with objective reality. Addressing the rising economic gap between rich and poor in society, it seems, will require us to contend not only with economic and political issues, but also with biases of our psychology.