I haven't quite worked this theory out yet, but my sense is that economic status has been cleaved free of economic security. So the sort of goods that signal affluence -- iPods and iPhones and laptop computers and plasma televisions -- are becoming much cheaper, more broadly accessible, and thus more widely owned. Lots of people, particularly young people, can thus claim economic status. The trappings of our wealth are all around us.
Yet economic security is quite a bit further from reach. It's impossible for me to imagine how I'll ever buy a home. Further education for me and eventual education for my kids are far beyond what my salary seems able to bear. And let's not get into health care. Point being: The affluence I can easily purchase into my 20s seems liable to crash right into the security I discover is out of reach in my 30s.
Meanwhile, from where I sit, the American Dream is a pretty weak force. White picket fences aren't the culturally transmitted vision of prosperity. Electronics are. Awesome stuff is.... By offering status without security, folks lose the class discontent that would turn them into a constituency for the security. And so they don't get it.
What Ezra reflects here is not a sense of cultural change, but a sense of his culture. His 23-year-old, born-in-the-middle-of-the-Reagan-administration culture. Of course iPods are a proxy for status--what do you need with security when you're twenty freakin' three? Parents with kids, geezers with ailing joints, oldsters confronting $5,000-a-day hospital bills: they do not trade baubles for security. They may choose baubles because they cannot choose security, but that's a different thing.
When you're young, you haven't had the experience of different selves--you haven't been a parent, a grunt worker, a pallbearer, middle-aged. So you extrapolate based on a small sample size of experience. In that condescension that only comes with age, I say: wait, Ezra, things will look different in twenty years.
(As to his point, I'll add this--Americans have never been particularly class-identified. But they are aware of their own relative levels of risk. I tend to think he has it backward. My guess is that there is a deep concern among Americans that they're one spill on an icy sidewalk from bankruptcy and that, after a generation of middle-class abetted profit-taking by the rich, this may be the change force of the next decade.)