It's a staple of every stirring political speech: the hardship riff. It could be a parent who worked menial jobs to put his children through school, allowing the new generation to vault ahead of the old. Or an immigrant who rose above racism and abuse. Or a war veteran who returned damaged and spent but somehow kept the family going.
The Republican National Convention features a full allotment of hardship riffs, as the Democratic convention surely will in early September. In the keynote speech, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie explained how his father grew up in poverty, worked at an ice cream factory after returning from World War II, and put himself through college at night. Ann Romney's grandfather was a Welsh coal miner "determined that his kids get out of the mines." Mitt Romney's father was a scrappy carpenter who never went to college yet became the CEO of American Motors and the governor of Michigan.
Such tales reflect the forces that made America the world's dominant economic and military power in the 20th century: an open-door policy to most immigrants. Economic mobility that allowed almost anybody to get ahead if they worked hard enough. Enlightened government policies like the G.I. Bill. A booming middle class that gave the nation a bedrock core.
It makes you wonder what the hardship riffs at political conventions will sound like a generation from now, as today's children and adolescents recount the adversity that toughened them up and helped springboard them to prominence. With income inequality soaring, the middle class supposedly in decline, and China set to eclipse the United States as the world's largest economy in a few years, there should be no shortage of woes.
Yet the nature of hardship in America isn't nearly as dramatic as it might have been a few decades ago. Record numbers of Americans go to college, a trend that seems likely to continue. Despite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, less than 1 percent of the population has served in the all-volunteer military, compared to about 9 percent during World War II. Poverty is still a problem, though most of the poor these days have TVs, cellphones, and ample food.
If you believe sociologist Charles Murray, the nation's future leaders may even come from a new gentrified class that will be unfamiliar with economic struggle. In his recent book Coming Apart, Murray describes how the upper and lower classes are becoming more entrenched and self-reinforcing, with little interaction between them. People born wealthy or poor today are more likely to stay that way than during the 20th century, he argues, with fewer bootstrappers moving up from one class to another. So the leaders giving speeches at the political conventions in 2028 or 2032 may mostly be the sons and daughters of the people taking the podium today.
For those who do achieve upward mobility, there are plenty of hurdles to overcome, especially in the aftermath of a grueling recession that has left millions struggling to find suitable work. And maybe there will be some future candidates who lost their jobs, their homes, their life savings, or their dignity, only to reclaim it and inspire us with their tales of determination.
Yet America today isn't the up-and-coming power it was when the fathers of Chris Christie and Mitt Romney were finding ways to improve their lots in life. The United States is now a rich, overspent nation that's in the midst of adjusting its attitudes and priorities. Many of the hardships people face today represent a diminution of comfort, not a quest for survival.
Somehow it won't be all that compelling to hear a candidate recall how he majored in sociology and then was forced to live in his parents' basement for eight years because there were no jobs, or how he took out more debt that he could afford to buy cars and clothes he didn't need, only to end up bankrupt. Hardships, yes. But not the kind that generate a rousing narrative.
One group that does still have it tough is immigrants, especially poor ones. They're the people who pick our food, clean our public toilets, and do the type of back-breaking, dangerous work Ann Romney's grandfather did. And with the odds increasingly stacked against them, rising into the leadership class would be a feat comparable to the fabled success stories of yore. Let's hope there are some stories like that in 20 or 30 years, or else the candidates seeking to inspire us will be reaching all the way back to their great-great-great-grandparents to summon the whiff of genuine struggle.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.