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A new social contract for America

The American Dream can't thrive on World War II-era policies.

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Malaise has made a comeback.

How else to describe the results of a recent Rockefeller Foundation/Time magazine poll in which 49 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds surveyed said that America was a better place to live in the 1990s and will continue to decline. Nine in 10 of all respondents agreed that just getting by is as hard as or harder than ever before.

At the root of such pessimism is the failure of the nation's social contract – the policies and institutions that support Americans as they pursue their economic and personal goals – to keep pace with the dizzying changes of the past two decades.

We've seen an explosion in information technology. The end of the cold war has unleashed massive amounts of human capital. Trade in goods and services is fully globalized. Medical advances are spurring gains in life expectancy. The return on higher education, measured by the difference in mean wages for those with and without advanced degrees, has grown 100 percent since 1974. And the traditional nuclear family is increasingly uncommon.

The programs designed to help Americans navigate the economy were conceived for a static, relatively closed economy in which higher education was valued but not essential, retirement was significantly shorter, and two-parent, single-income families predominated.

In other words, the current social contract is as antiquated as the typewriter it was written on.

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