A survey unveiled at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Wednesday found that a representative sample of the US believes the American Dream is harder than ever to achieve — but that on an individual level, they’re living it.
The seventh annual survey on the American Dream was commissioned by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute and conducted by market research firm Penn Schoen Berland (PSB) with PR firm Burson-Marsteller.
From June 8-19, they collected responses from 1,988 people representing the country’s general population, along with 513 people representing “broad elites” (defined as college-educated individuals making more than $US75,000 who follow current affairs).
We spoke with Mark Penn, executive vice president and chief insights officer at Microsoft and founder of PSB, and Don Baer, the CEO of Burson-Marsteller and chairman of PSB, to understand the key findings of the survey.
Interestingly, most people are cynical about the American Dream generally. Seventy-five per cent of those polled said the American Dream is suffering, 69% said the obstacles to achieving it are more difficult than ever, and 64% think the country is “on the wrong track.”
Yet they are personally optimistic: 72% said they are living the American Dream or expect to in their lifetime, 85% are happy with their lives overall, 72% are happy with their jobs, 86% are optimistic about the future, and 67% feel financially secure.
The main finding, Penn said, is that “even though there’s a cloud over the political system, there’s a high degree of personal optimism that people are finding within themselves, particularly as things have improved since the financial crisis.”
African-Americans and Latinos are the most optimistic ethnic demographics for the first time in the seven years the poll has been conducted. Eighty-nine per cent of African-Americans believe they have achieved or will achieve their personal goals, with an additional 82% believing they will achieve their career goals; 86% of Latinos are optimistic about personal goals and 83% about career goals; Asian-Americans and Whites both report 70% optimism about personal goals and 80% about career goals.
Millennials, defined here as those under 30, are the most optimistic age demographic. Seventy-seven per cent of millennials believe they are living or will live the American Dream, compared to the least optimistic age demographic, ages 51-64, who still are optimistic at a rate of 63%.
Americans consider living the Dream to be financial security with no debt and a comfortable level of disposable income. Home ownership is no longer a main factor, with only 20% considering it relevant.
Sixty-eight per cent of the broad population and 74% of elites think barriers to the Dream need to be immediately addressed. There’s roughly a split down the middle about whether increasing/improving or reducing government is the answer, with the slight majority across all ethnicities going toward reducing it.
Baer said he considers the survey to be indicative of a “pretty critical moment” in the US, where personal optimism will either compel individuals to find ways to reduce barriers to the Dream either through their own actions or votes, or that pessimism about the country’s direction will overcome their personal optimism.
As a final point, he added with a laugh that the “other generations have to be ready for the sharp elbows of the millennials” as those most likely to compel change.
Here’s the full presentation given at the Aspen Ideas Festival:
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