Americans Are No Longer Optimists

A survey reveals deep uncertainty the country's future—but also growing consensus on issues like same-sex marriage and marijuana.

Historically, Americans have been optimistic about the future and confident about our leadership in the world, while at the same time being deeply divided on so-called social issues like same-sex marriage and marijuana use. That trend appears to be reversing, giving way to what might be called an age of impossibility, where Americans are deeply uncertain about our country’s future, according to a special survey commissioned for The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute for the tenth Aspen Ideas Festival. The survey, an online poll of more than 2,000 Americans, was conducted by Penn Schoen Berland, working with Burson-Marsteller, from May 28 to 31, 2014.

The poll is a jarring wake-up call to anyone who still believes America is a country of optimists. Nearly two-thirds of Americans—65 percent—question whether America will be on the right track in 10 years. They are also split on whether the country will be a “land of opportunity” (33 percent say yes, 42 percent say no, and 24 percent say they don’t know). In their view, the American Dream itself seems to be fading. Seven in 10 Americans have real doubts about whether working hard and playing by the rules will bring success in the future. They are also concerned about their children’s futures. Despite falling unemployment in many states, 64 percent of parents believe it will be difficult for their children to find good jobs in 10 years.

Notably, two groups that are less likely to subscribe to this gloomy forecast are African Americans and Hispanics; they tend to believe America is on the right track and will remain a land of opportunity. Women, however, tend to be more pessimistic than men. They are less likely to believe they will be better off financially or heading towards a secure retirement in 10 years. They are also less likely to believe their children will be better off in 10 years or that they’ll be able to afford their children’s college education.

Their concerns reflect a broader trend. While 56 percent of parents believe college will be increasingly important in the coming years, less than one third—29 percent—believe they will be able to afford to pay for their children to go. The prognosis is equally dire for secondary education. Not only do most Americans doubt whether our students will improve in science and math over the coming years—widely seen as key elements of national progress—but they also seem to be giving up on the idea of public education itself. Somewhat amazingly for a country that has long built its national identity on universal public education, fully one third of Americans say private not public education will be the best option for their children in 10 years.

To borrow an old line about politics, pessimism does not stop at the water’s edge. While America was once considered the indispensable nation, only three in 10 Americans now believe our global standing will be rising in 10 years; 43 percent think it will be declining. There is, however, general agreement about China’s rise to global preeminence. In fact, when asked to name a country that will be a superpower in 10 years, Americans were more likely to name China than the United States. Americans also foresee a less peaceful world. By 2024, 19 percent of Americans foresee armed conflict with China, 31 percent foresee it with Russia, and nearly half—45 percent—of all Americans foresee armed conflict with Iran.

Americans’ pessimism and uncertainty also extends to our ability to govern ourselves. Two-thirds of Americans doubt we will be more unified in the coming years. And while Americans are split on whether government as a whole will be any more effective in the future than it is today, there is more agreement that Congress itself will be less effective. Fifty-four percent of Americans also believe government will grow bigger in 10 years, with 38 percent of Americans believing America will have government-run health care. Just 18 percent of Americans believe Obamacare will exist with only minor changes in a decade. Two-thirds—67 percent—believe it will either exist with major changes or cease to exist at all. And two-thirds also believe a female president will be elected in the next 10 years.

Presented by

Mark Penn is executive vice president and chief strategy officer of Microsoft.

Donald A. Baer

Don Baer is worldwide chair and CEO of Burson-Marsteller.

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