NEW POLL: Americans Stay Optimistic About 'Getting Ahead,' But With Lower Expectations
Americans remain optimistic about their ability to "get ahead," even through a challenging economic recovery, but many have lowered their expectations about what that means in the face of rising college costs, jobs going overseas and a growing income gap, according to poll results announced by The Allstate Corporation and National Journal.
The 14th quarterly Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll explores perceptions of upward mobility among Americans and sheds new light on the challenges and obstacles they face in their continued efforts to get ahead. Nearly half (48%) of Americans say they have more opportunity to get ahead than their parents did, and 73% say they expect to reach financial security and comfort in their lifetimes. Today, three in four Americans say getting ahead is harder than in the past, but an equal proportion have been able get ahead in their lifetime.
"Americans continue to hold an aspirational view of their own ability to get ahead in the future and the ability of the country to rebound, but they believe that achieving their life goals is harder than it used to be and the path to those goals is more uncertain," said Joan Walker, executive vice president of corporate relations for Allstate. "At the same time, the economic and psychological impact of the Great Recession clearly continues as Americans are recalibrating the very definition of what getting ahead means and increasingly seeking stability and security over riskier chances for upward mobility. Managing through a protracted period of stagnant job growth and depressed wages, reducing personal debt and grappling with higher education costs are all significant components of the new social and economic paradigm for middle-class families."
Most Americans, as in earlier generations, still believe they control their own destinies. Asked what plays the greatest role in determining whether they will succeed, about two-thirds identified either their own skills and hard work or their educational background; less than one in five said the key factor was the economy's overall state. Only about one in 20 assigned the most responsibility to either government policies or their ethnic and racial background.
But even while 76% of Americans say they've been able to get ahead financially over the course of their lives so far, nearly as many (75%) believe it is harder to do so today than in previous generations. Almost half (48%) say they have more opportunities than their parents did at the same age, but a greater number combined say they either have the same opportunities (28%) or fewer (23%). Minorities (at 61%) are more likely than whites (at 44%) to say they have more opportunities than their parents did.
And slightly more than half of Americans (51%) say the economic downturn has redefined what it means to "get ahead," defining success today as holding a job, paying bills, avoiding debt and saving a little for the future, rather than bigger success factors, like steady increases in income, buying a home, or saving and investing more each year.
"The results of this poll capture the systemic strain between the bedrock American belief that anyone who works hard enough can succeed and the uneasy sense that persistent, and perplexing, headwinds in a globalized economy are making it harder for workers to get ahead," said Ronald Brownstein, editorial director for National Journal. "From it emerges a picture of a wary but resilient public that is systematically adjusting itself, more by necessity than choice, to an economic order in which nothing is more predictable than uncertainty."
Key findings from the 14th Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll include:
1) The overwhelming majority of Americans believe they live in the "land of opportunity," and most believe they are living the American Dream. However, they are less certain about the opportunities the next generation will have.
2) Most Americans report having gotten ahead throughout their lives, and they are confident in their ability to do so in the future. But they also believe it is harder now than it has been in previous generations.
3) More than half of Americans believe that the economic downturn has redefined what it means to "get ahead," and nearly half expect the nation's income gap to continue growing.
• 79% - Companies sending jobs overseas
• 71% - Rising prices that make it harder to save and make investments
• 70% - The cost of college and graduate school education
• 65% - Competition for work from other countries
• 62% - Too many gains from economic growth are going to big companies and the richest Americans
• 61% - An education system that doesn't provide enough skills
• 58% - Taxes and government regulations
• 44% - Americans don't work as hard today as previous generations did
• 38% - Immigrants coming to this country and competing for jobs
• 34% - Unions aren't as strong as they used to be
4) Americans continue to grow slightly more optimistic about the direction of the country and they have a slightly more positive economic outlook.
The Allstate Corporation is the nation's largest publicly held personal lines insurer. National Journal is Washington's premier source for 360-degree insight on politics and policy.