Economy Poll: Adults Are More Anxious Than Ever, but Teens Are Upbeat

Across gender, race, and class, American adults say it was better to be a child when they were young and believe today's kids will enjoy less financial security than they did.
Jim Young/Reuters

In the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll, an overwhelming majority of American adults say it was better to be either a child or a parent when they were young rather than now. Over two-thirds believe that when today's kids grow up, they will enjoy less financial security than adults today. And another two-thirds say today's children face more challenges than opportunities. On all of these questions, the anxiety crosses lines of gender, race, and class.

Teenagers, responding to a separate survey, were noticeably more upbeat about their prospects — and even adults were more optimistic about kids in their families and neighborhoods than in the country overall. And Americans across racial and class differences delivered a generally favorable assessment of the opportunities available to children to receive a quality education, good health care, and equal treatment regardless of their race or gender.

Yet this comprehensive look at attitudes about the state of childhood in America conveys a widespread sense that families today face complex and interconnected challenges rooted in an economy that typically requires earnings from two parents — and leaves them too little time to shape their children's values, especially against the tug of an inescapable media and online culture. Parents are "letting technology raise their kids," says Chris Hupp, a 29-year-old bartender from San Antonio who responded to the survey. "Back then, a family could sustain itself on one income. Now both parents have to work, and the kids end up raising themselves … and that leads kids to make poor decisions."

These are anxieties that have waxed and waned through American life since women started moving heavily into the workforce after 1960. But the poll leaves little doubt that the Great Recession and its grueling aftermath have sharpened these worries. Some respondents focused more on economic pressures, others on cultural and media influences, but both sets of concerns led most to the same place: a sense that family life is under enormous strain. For kids today, worries Connie Rivera, a security guard and a parent from the Bronx, N.Y., it's a challenge "just trying to stay afloat. It's a competing world …. They're going to have to settle for less."

With the economy still struggling in low gear, the survey also captures a noticeable chill in public attitudes about the nation's direction and political leadership. The share of Americans who say the country is on the wrong track spiked in the poll to its highest level since December 2011, and President Obama's approval rating skidded from last June to just 40 percent — the lowest measured in any of the 18 quarterly Heartland Monitor polls conducted since April 2009. Attitudes toward Congress also hit a new low. When asked whom they trusted to make decisions affecting children, Americans expressed modest confidence, at best, in any figures beyond those closest to home, such as teachers. That finding reaffirmed one of the most powerful trends in the Heartland Monitor polling: the skepticism of most Americans that they can expect help from any institution more distant than the "little platoons" of community and family.

The Big Picture
The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll is the 18th in a series examining how Americans are experiencing the changing economy. This poll, which explored how Americans assess the state of childhood and parenthood, surveyed 1,000 adults by landline and cell phones Sept. 3-7. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

In addition, National Journal conducted a separate online survey of 300 teenagers ages 13 to 18 (only including 18-year-olds who are still in high school); teen participants received a small compensation for responding. The survey is reflective of the demographics of American teens, but it does not carry the same statistical validity as the random phone survey of adults.

Both surveys were supervised by Ed Reilly, Brent McGoldrick, Jeremy Ruch, and Jocelyn Landau of FTI Consulting's Strategic Communications practice.

The faith that each generation will live better than its predecessor has been described as the operative definition of the American Dream. These latest Heartland Monitor results show how a decade of economic turmoil and stagnation has strained that conviction.

As in earlier polls, Americans divided about equally on whether the ladder of upward mobility is still operating in their own lives. Just under half of those polled (45 percent) say they have more opportunity to get ahead than their parents did at the same age, but a combined majority say they either have less (27 percent) or about the same (26 percent) opportunity. Minorities, as in earlier surveys, remain broadly optimistic, with 60 percent saying they have more opportunity than their parents, versus 23 percent less. Whites are more equivocal, with a modest 38 percent seeing more opportunity in their lives, to 29 percent who see less; whites without college degrees are even more dubious (35 percent to 31 percent).

Looking forward, Americans are much more unified — and uneasy. Just 20 percent of those polled said that when today's children are adults, they will have more opportunity to get ahead than adults today; that's the smallest number the Heartland Monitor has recorded in the five times it has asked that question since July 2009. More than twice as many respondents, 45 percent, say they expect today's kids to have less opportunity as adults. That's the most who have ever taken that pessimistic position. Another 30 percent expect opportunities to remain about the same.

When the poll last asked this question, in September 2012, 51 percent of minorities anticipated expanding opportunities, about double the level for whites. But in the new survey, expectations have darkened for both groups: Now just 36 percent of nonwhites, and a microscopic 14 percent of whites, believe the next generation will enjoy more opportunity. (Strikingly, whites with college degrees, the group that has fared best in the recession, are even more pessimistic than whites without advanced education.) Young adults, ages 18 to 29, split about evenly about whether opportunity would increase or contract for today's kids; but in every older age group, no more than one-fifth expected improvement. "All the factories have gone overseas," says George Hackel, a 76-year-old retired bricklayer in Mayfield, Ky. "There are less opportunities unless you want to be flipping hamburgers." Hupp, the San Antonio bartender, is nearly 50 years younger, but he sees a similar dynamic. "The cost of education is going up, and jobs are being outsourced to other countries," Hupp says. "It's a downward spiral."

These economic anxieties infuse the deeply dispirited responses to the poll's two broadest questions. One asked respondents whether it was better to be a child in the U.S. now or when they were growing up. Just 16 percent said they thought it was better to be a child today; 79 percent said it was better when they were young. On this question, minorities (at 28 percent) were more likely than whites (12 percent) to say kids were better off today. But even 70 percent of nonwhites said children were better off during their own youth — a remarkable finding, given the civil-rights advancements over the past half-century. Results on this question varied hardly at all by education, and parents of school-age children leaned even slightly further toward preferring the past. Those earning at least $100,000 were nearly as likely as those earning less than $30,000 to say childhood was better before.

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The same dynamics held on a companion question that asked respondents whether it was better to be a parent today or when they were growing up. Again, an overwhelming 75 percent picked the past; just 19 percent said it is better to be a parent today. At least two-thirds of those in every age and income category, as well as more than 70 percent of whites and minorities, said it was better to be a parent in earlier generations.

Some of this surely reflects the primal instinct to remember the past through rose-colored glasses; adults have been lamenting the corruption of youth throughout human history. ("Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way?" went the lyrics to "Kids," a number in the 1960 Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie.) But the overwhelming consensus in the survey that family life was easier for earlier generations also seems to braid together two distinct, if intertwined, concerns: a more conservative lament about eroding values, and a liberal unease over constricting economic opportunity.

Abe Keil, a 42-year-old aircraft mechanic in St. Louis, was one of many respondents who saw cultural decline keying the challenges to the modern family. "When I was growing up, you were corrected at a friend's house," he insisted. "Now kids do what they want to do. The liberals don't think you should punish your kid." Sarah Goad, a 47-year-old who is unemployed in Summertown, Tenn., sees a breakdown in personal responsibility. "They have no concept of responsibility: how to act … how to function out in the real world," she says. "Their parents have handed them too much on a platter."

The other track of concern follows the economic threats cited by Hackel and Hupp. Jesse Graczyk, who is unemployed and watching his kids in Avon, Ohio, while his wife works in a restaurant, says it is difficult to find the money for family activities. "When I grew up, my mom was a stay-at-home mom and my dad worked; and back then, he was able to find ways to … do things as a family," he said. "Nowadays, it's not affordable to do family things." Compounding his concern, Graczyk says, his wife's hours makes it hard for her "to get quality time with the kids" while he worries they are getting "over-attention from me."

Joy Eisenhower, a retired nurse in Smyrna, Del., who has four adult children and is now raising two younger children as their legal guardian, was one of many respondents who worried that good jobs won't be available even for youths who can afford a college education. "We're not giving them the tools to be able to deal with a lot of things coming down the pike," she says. "There's no job security. Technology is taking a lot of jobs away. What place needs a telephone operator?"

These twin strands of anxiety wound through responses to another bank of questions that asked respondents about what today's children could expect when they come of age. Most of those polled expressed concern about the external conditions that will face the rising generation — and the values with which they will confront those challenges. Just 21 percent said that compared with today's adults, young people will have more "financial security, including a steady job and owning a home without too much debt," while 68 percent thought they would have less of those things. Only 27 percent thought today's kids would have more "financial freedom … the ability to afford some luxuries and a comfortable retirement," while 62 percent thought those things would be more rare. Minorities were somewhat more likely than whites to expect improvement, but most of them as well thought conditions would deteriorate.

The prognosis wasn't much better on expectations about the values of the younger generation: 65 percent of adults thought that, compared with their own generation, today's kids as adults would display less patriotism; 63 percent thought their work ethic would flag; and 53 percent believed they would behave with less financial responsibility. Despite studies showing the millennial generation possessing a deep interest in voluntarism and public service, 48 percent thought they would show less civic responsibility; 41 percent expected more. (Age shaped the responses on this question: Young adults ages 18 to 29, by a solid 56 percent to 33 percent, thought today's young people would exhibit more civic responsibility.)

Some of this may reflect the Bye Bye Birdie tendency of older people to see every generation as a step back toward the swamp, but it's worth noting that parents of school-age children didn't differ much on either these economic or values judgments.

Given these dim expectations, it's no surprise that those surveyed, by a resounding 66 percent to 25 percent, said that children in the U.S. today are faced with more challenges than opportunities. The result was quite different when the poll asked whether "children in your community, like those in your family and neighborhood," face more challenges or opportunities than the average child. With the lens pulled tighter, 45 percent of all adults said kids in their orbit had more opportunities than average, while 42 percent saw greater than average challenges; parents split 47 percent to 41 percent toward more opportunities.

Still, that's hardly a ringing endorsement. And this question provoked sharper distinctions along class and racial lines. While whites tilted slightly toward seeing more opportunities for kids in their radius, minorities bent toward seeing greater challenges. The contrast was even more vivid on education and income: Those earning at least $100,000 were more than twice as likely as those earning less than $30,000 to see greater than average opportunity for kids in their immediate circle. Nearly three-fifths of adults with college degrees saw more than average opportunities for kids around them. Only about two-fifths of adults without degrees agreed. Optimism about the next generation is now another entry on the long list of ways that life is diverging for Americans with and without advanced education.

Opportunities and Risks
In addition, the poll offered a panoramic look at how adults, including parents, assess the major opportunities and risks confronting today's young people.

Americans offered reasonably positive assessments when asked to evaluate whether today's children had access to a half-dozen conditions that could help them succeed, including quality education and health care; equal treatment regardless of race or gender; sufficient love and attention from their family; and enough time to play and have fun. In each case, no more than about two-fifths said these conditions were "very accessible" for the average child. But in all six cases, at least two-thirds thought these conditions were either "very" or at least "somewhat" accessible for the average kid.

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While just about one-fourth thought a quality education was very accessible for the average child, another 49 percent considered it at least somewhat accessible. Eighty percent believed the opportunity to be treated equally "regardless of gender, race, orientation, or disability" was now very or somewhat available to children, with minorities, strikingly, responding as positively as whites. Respondents showed the most hesitation when asked whether today's kids had "future opportunities to get good jobs as adults": Just 16 percent saw those opportunities as widely available, while another 56 percent considered them only somewhat accessible and about a fourth thought they were not very, or not at all, accessible. On all of these measures, parents of school-age children differed little from other adults. About three-fourths of parents also expressed satisfaction with the child-care options available to them, with cost far outdistancing quality as the top concern.

Parents again varied little from other adults when asked to rank 10 potential challenges facing today's young people. For each of the 10 challenges listed, at least 86 percent of adults said they presented either a "very" or "somewhat" serious threat to children. Solid majorities of 55 percent or more thought the average child faced "very serious" risk (in ascending order) of missing educational opportunities because they were too expensive; experiencing or witnessing violence in the home; endangering their health with alcohol or cigarettes; being exposed to violent or sexually explicit content online or in the media; losing their privacy through the Internet and social media; or being exposed to drugs and crime in their neighborhood.

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Rivera, the Hispanic security guard in the Bronx, feels those threats acutely. "When I was growing up, there were more activities school-wise to keep us out of the street," she says. "Now my children go to school, and there's no funding and nothing for them to do after school. There are so many kids outside, and that leads to bad stuff." Not only urban parents worried about the latchkey problem. "Kids have challenges, because both parents work and they have no supervision," says Brittany Hurst, a stay-at-home mother in the small village of Weston, Ohio. "Quite a few kids come over to play because their parents are working…. And a lot of the older teenagers in the community kind of just hang out and loiter at the park, smoking and things."

When asked what they considered the biggest threat to their children's "safety and well-being," parents ranked in order unsafe driving (22 percent); drug and alcohol use (19 percent); bullying (16 percent); doing poorly in school (11 percent); and online predators (10 percent). By contrast, the teens polled in the separate online survey thought their parents (by far) were most concerned about them doing poorly in school (43 percent), followed by drug and alcohol use (20 percent); bullying (10 percent); and online predators and unsafe sex (8 percent each). Just 7 percent of teens thought their parents worried most about unsafe driving, which was, in fact, parents' top concern. That was only one of many areas in which today's teens took a very different posture than their parents.

A Dissenting View
Perhaps not shockingly for anyone who has raised a teen or can recall those years, the teenagers who participated in a parallel online poll expressed pretty much the opposite view of their parents on several questions. But, in revealing ways, they also converged with older generations.

On the big question of whether teenagers now face more opportunities or challenges, teens and the parents of teens broke in similar directions, with two-thirds seeing mostly challenges. A 41 percent plurality of teens thought they personally had more opportunities than the average teenager, compared with 27 percent who thought they faced more challenges; parents of teens bent even further toward believing their children enjoyed better-than-average opportunities.

Teens and teens' parents also differed only modestly in ranking the opportunities available to today's youth, although teens were considerably less likely to believe that "sufficient love and attention from their family" was widely accessible. The two groups broadly converged as well in ranking the threats facing young people, except that teens were much less likely to believe the average kid is exposed to violence outside the home, or to consider media violence a serious threat.

Wider chasms opened on other fronts. Unlike parents, teens showed much more optimism about the future and much less longing for the past. Essentially reversing the results among adults, 45 percent of teens thought they would have more opportunities to get ahead than today's adults, while only 24 percent thought they would experience fewer opportunities. While adults overwhelmingly picked the past, teens split closely on whether it is better to grow up today (54 percent) or in previous generations (46 percent). The groups differed again, but not nearly as much, on parenting: 40 percent of teens thought it was better to be a parent today (roughly double the share of parents of teenagers who said so), but 60 percent still thought it was easier for earlier generations.

Some of the most telling contrasts came in the way parents and teens assessed the way the latter are spending their time. Nearly three-fourths of parents of school-age kids expressed a broad fear that parents "are too busy with work and their own personal lives" to spend enough time with kids, while just under one-fifth worried that "parents are too closely involved in every aspect of their children's lives." Teens took the opposite view: 68 percent said their parents "are too closely involved in every aspect of my life," while 32 percent thought parents were too preoccupied with work.

Among adults, a resounding 76 percent said kids are spending "too much time watching TV and playing video games," while only 16 percent said kids "are involved in too many sports, clubs, and activities and are overly scheduled." The survey didn't ask teens to judge their digital habits, but on the broader issue, they converged to a surprising extent with parents: 74 percent said they would "like to be involved in more organized activities that give me something to do," while only 26 percent said they are overscheduled with such options.

Still, teens rejected the portrait of them as a generation twiddling their thumbs (or twiddling them over video controls): Only 27 percent said they don't participate in any extracurricular activities, and 44 percent said they are spending at least six hours a week on those pursuits. Nearly one in five said they work at a paying job during the school year, and almost three in 10 said they did so over the summer.

Teens diverged again from older generations on two key questions relating to education. Like earlier Heartland Monitor polls, this survey found a surprising degree of division among adults over whether a college education is "a ticket to the middle class that helps people get good jobs" (53 percent), or "an economic burden that is often too expensive and requires taking on debt to pay for" (39 percent). But teens weren't nearly as conflicted: 86 percent described college as a good investment, to only 14 percent who saw it as not worth the cost. More than two-thirds of teenagers say they expect to attend a four-year college when they finish high school; just 2 percent anticipate immediately entering the workforce.

Another telling difference came on a question about who is most responsible for kids succeeding in school. Among parents of school-age children, some two-thirds picked parents, while about one-sixth identified teachers and only one in 10 named the children themselves. Teens virtually inverted those results: Only one in eight picked parents, one in 14 picked teachers, and about four in five said they were most responsible personally for their school performance. For the most part, the poll found, teens are confident about how they are exercising that responsibility: Asked to rate their satisfaction with different aspects of their lives, teens put their school performance, health, personal safety, and academic future at the top of the list, and their physical appearance and family's financial situation at the bottom.

Parenting Alone
The sense among parents that they — rather than teachers or the kids themselves — bear primary responsibility for their children's school performance captures a consistent go-it-alone strain among them in the poll. In a variety of ways, parents expressed the belief that in raising their children they are operating with few allies. And, mostly, the poll suggests, they are dubious that government or big private institutions will, or even should, do much to help them.

Although the survey found that both parents and all adults demonstrated a substantial trust in teachers, school administrators, and coaches to make decisions that are good for kids, institutions a step further from home received equivocal ratings at best: 69 percent expressed a "great deal" or "some" trust in religious leaders, 52 percent in President Obama, 46 percent in state and local government leaders, 28 percent in Congress, and only 22 percent in companies that produce movies and video games for children.

The modern communications revolution that has seen the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and social media also provoked a mixed reaction and stirred some of the most impassioned responses in follow-up interviews. Among all adults, 48 percent said the communications changes have had mostly a negative effect on children by exposing them to inappropriate content, compromising their privacy or isolating them; 43 percent said they have had mostly positive effects by allowing parents to stay in closer touch and providing kids access to more information. Parents tilted slightly further toward the negative side. Hurst, a stay-at-home mom, was one of those who believed the communications revolution is benefiting families. "It's easier today, because there's a lot more ability for parents to connect," she says. "They can use the Internet and computers as a parenting resource." But Jacqueline Matthews, a retired telephone operator in Portsmouth, Va., was one of many who worried that digital entertainment was consuming childhood, partly because it is filling the void left by the many parents who work outside the home. "They're involved with their own careers a lot and pawn their kids off on computers," she says.

Parents don't seem to be anticipating much help from business or government, either. Just 43 percent of parents (and 42 percent of all adults) agreed that the "entire country has a shared responsibility to invest more in children and young families," with such policies as paid leave or flexible work schedules that may be available only to parents; 48 percent of parents (and 51 percent of all adults) endorsed the competing statement that "raising … children is the responsibility of the parents" and "should not be subsidized through higher costs for businesses [or] … higher taxes and longer working hours for nonparents."

Even more emphatically, only about one-third of both parents and other adults said the best way to make rearing children more affordable is to increase "public spending on programs like universal pre-K, improvements in primary and secondary education, subsidies for child care, guaranteed health care for children, and college tuition assistance, even if it means higher taxes." About three-fifths of parents and other adults said a better way to help parents was to cut taxes, "even if it means less spending on public programs." Minorities were more likely than whites to prefer public spending, but even a slight majority of them picked tax cuts. When it comes to raising children, all of these results suggest, parents very much feel that they are home alone.

Michael Mellody contributed to this post.

Presented by

Ronald Brownstein is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for the National Journal, contributes to Quartz, and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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