How Younger Americans Are Redefining Success

New Heartland Monitor poll finds Americans agree it's harder to get started as an adult than in the past.

National Journal

Against a backdrop of tumultuous economic and demographic change, younger Americans are drawing a new 21st-century road map to success, the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll has found.

Across generational lines, Americans continue to prize many of the same traditional milestones of a successful life, including getting married, having children, owning a home, and retiring in their sixties. But while young and old mostly agree on what constitutes the finish line of a fulfilling life, they offer strikingly different paths for reaching it.

Young people who are still getting started in life were more likely than older adults to prioritize personal fulfillment in their work, to believe they will advance their careers most by regularly changing jobs, to favor communities with more public services and a faster pace of life, to agree that couples should be financially secure before getting married or having children, and to maintain that children are best served by two parents working outside the home, the survey found.

From career to community and family, these contrasts suggest that in the aftermath of the searing Great Recession, those just starting out in life are defining priorities and expectations that will increasingly ripple through virtually all aspects of American life, from consumer preferences to housing patterns to politics.

Young and old converge on one key point: Preponderant majorities of both groups said they believe it is harder for young people today to get started in life than it was for earlier generations. While younger people are somewhat more optimistic than their elders about the prospects for those starting out today, big majorities in both groups believe those "just getting started in life" face a tougher climb than earlier generations in reaching such signpost achievements as securing a good-paying job, starting a family, managing debt, and finding affordable housing.

Pete Schneider considers the climb tougher today. Schneider, a 27-year-old auto technician from the Chicago suburbs, says he struggled to find a job after graduating from college. Even now that he is working steadily, he said, "I can't afford to pay my monthly mortgage payments on my own, so I have to rent rooms out to people to make that happen." Looking back, he is struck that his parents could provide a comfortable life for their children even though neither had completed college when he was young. "I still grew up in an upper middle-class home with parents who didn't have college degrees," Schneider said. "I don't think people are capable of that anymore."

Overall, fully 78 percent of adults agreed that "compared to earlier generations "... it is currently harder" for young people today "to get started in life." Just 16 percent of those surveyed thought it was easier for young people to get started today.

The latest Heartland Monitor Poll offers a detailed look at what Americans consider the path to success in today's economy. The results, which National Journal and The Atlantic will report in a series of stories over the next two weeks, examines the decisions that those just starting out in life believe will take them to their goals—and how that map differs from the course that earlier generations followed.

To compare attitudes across generations, the poll divided respondents into two broad groups—a younger cohort that qualifies as still starting out, and an older cohort that has passed that initial stage of life. The poll defined the younger cohort as all adults aged 18 to 24, as well as the nearly three-quarters of those aged 25 to 29 who identified themselves as "still 'getting started in life,'" after responding to questions about what constituted that initial stage of experience. The poll defined the older cohort as the remaining roughly one-quarter of 25- to 29-year-olds, plus all respondents over 30.

In these stories, we will describe those whom the poll identified as still starting out as the younger group (or cohort) and those who have passed that stage as the older group.

Both the younger and older groups largely agreed in the poll on the definition of starting out—and on the thresholds that mark the end of that stage in life. The two groups also largely converged on the greatest challenges young people face today in getting started, though with slightly differing emphasis.

Among the younger group, 37 percent said the biggest obstacle facing those starting out today is money and their personal budget, followed by 25 percent who picked education, 20 percent who identified work and career, and 11 percent who pointed to relationships and family. The older cohort ranked the challenges facing those starting out today in the same order, though they divided about equally between budget, education, and career atop the list.

Older and younger adults separated somewhat more when asked to compare the challenges facing those starting out today with those that confronted earlier generations. Young people consistently offered a somewhat more optimistic assessment of their prospects than older people did. But in both groups, clear majorities thought those getting started now face a rockier path than their predecessors.

Asked to assess the opportunity for those getting started today to "manage personal finances and control debt," just 16 percent of older respondents said it was easier for young people today than for previous generations, while 76 percent said it is harder. Younger people were considerably more optimistic, but even so, only 31 percent said it was easier for them to manage money than for earlier generations, while 65 percent said it was tougher.

Likewise, older respondents were far more likely to say it is harder (75 percent) than easier (18 percent) for those starting out today to "find affordable and desirable housing" when compared to earlier generations. Younger people were only slightly more optimistic, with 24 percent of those still starting out rating their situation as easier and 72 percent as harder.

Assessing the road to career success, just 12 percent of older respondents thought it is easier for those starting out to "find a good-paying and steady job" than it was for earlier generations; fully 81 percent thought it is harder. Young people were barely more optimistic, with 18 percent of those starting out rating their job prospects as better and 78 percent as tougher.

In follow-up interviews, both younger and older respondents expressed a nuanced view of the employment environment confronting those starting out today. On the one hand, many agreed that the computer and communications revolution was creating new opportunities for younger people. On the other, there was equal consensus that getting ahead financially has grown tougher—and almost always requires a postsecondary degree that imposes its own economic stresses with student debt.

"The tech industry is a huge game-changer," said Christopher Reeves, a 27-year-old who lives in Detroit and works odd jobs. "Technology is the only thing where this generation flourishes." But overall, Reeves thinks it's harder for his generation to advance in today's economy. "The Internet has made a lot of things easier for us," he said. "It's just that now there's less money to go around and more people in our generation. We have all these technical advances. But we haven't advanced socially, and it really shows."

Logan Steiner, a 20-year-old college senior living in Meadville, Pennsylvania, takes a similar view. "I just feel like our educational systems have improved," said Steiner, who is studying physics. "I'm not saying they're perfect, but they've been improving and they'll keep improving." On the other hand, he adds, "it is harder because you're expected to know more and be up to date with technology. It's more competitive."

At 39, Pavel Kostadinov, a hotel bellman in Naples, Florida with two children, is further along in his life than Reeves or Steiner. But he too worries about the opportunities available to younger generations. "People around me generally have fewer opportunities than I think they had 30 or 40 years ago," he said. "I see people who want to move ahead and move higher, but there's nowhere to go."

Generational differences reemerged on a final measure: By more than seven-to-one, older respondents thought it was tougher rather than easier for those starting out today to "start and support a family." Young people, again, weren't quite as pessimistic—but still they agreed by a margin of nearly three-to-one that starting a family is tougher today.

When asked to consider all of these factors, an overwhelming 80 percent of older respondents thought that it was harder "for young people today to get started in life," while only 13 percent thought it was easier. Among the younger group, 27 percent thought it was easier to get started today, double the share among older respondents. Even so, a resounding 68 percent of younger respondents still thought it was tougher.

Looking specifically at younger people still starting out, the survey found relatively few demographic differences along lines of race or gender in their assessments of these challenges. (One exception: Whites were considerably more likely than nonwhites to say that it was tougher overall for young people to get started today.) But one experience clearly split the younger cohort: The substantial 45 percent of younger people with student loans were consistently more downbeat than the 55 percent without them.

Those in the younger group who are holding student debt were considerably more likely than those without such debts to say that it was tougher overall for young people to get started today. While 32 percent of younger people without such debts said it was easier for those starting out today, only 22 percent of those with student loans agreed; fully 75 percent of the younger group with loans said it was tougher to get started, compared to 63 percent of those without them.

Those in the younger group with loans were also more likely than those without them to say it was tougher today to manage personal finances and control debt, and to describe it as tougher to start a family. The weight of student-loan debt may be one reason for the surprising finding that those in the younger group with college degrees were actually slightly more likely than those without them to say that it was tougher overall to get started today.

Debts loomed as a prime concern for many of the young people contacted in follow-up interviews. "I'm trying to be responsible and pay for my schooling [debts] while I'm working," said Kayla Matulka, a 22-year old who works for the city attorney's office in Lincoln, Nebraska. "Budgeting is a big thing for me." Steiner, similarly, has his debts firmly in mind as he contemplates his career after school. "When I get a job, I hope to be able to pay off those student loans as soon as possible."

Despite these pervasive challenges, the poll also found continuing evidence of the personal optimism and resilience that previous Heartland polls and other surveys have identified as a defining millennial-generation characteristic. In the new survey, the younger group was more likely than the older cohort to say they believe they have more opportunity to advance than their parents did—though that contrast may reflect social changes as much as economic trends.

Overall, 50 percent of the younger group said they have "more opportunity to get ahead" than their parents did at the same age, while only 28 percent said they had less, and 22 percent viewed their opportunities as equivalent. Among the older group, only 40 percent thought they had more opportunity, while 29 percent thought they had less opportunity and 27 percent the same.

But in that younger group, women (58 percent) were much more likely than men (42 percent), and minorities (62 percent) far more likely than whites (41 percent), to say they had more opportunity than their parents. (Among younger white men, just 31 percent thought they had more opportunity than their parents, while 39 percent thought they had less .) That suggests the younger group's relatively greater optimism may be rooted more in assessments of falling workplace racial and gender barriers than broader views about the economy's trajectory.

The power of those social shifts was evident to many older respondents too. Sherri Hinnant, a 56-year-old teacher in Marion, Virginia, says that young women today have many more options than she did at their age. "I was the first person in my family to even graduate from high school, much less go to college and get a postgraduate degree," she said. "It was expected for women to get married right out of school. Nowadays, that pressure isn't put on kids. They can do what they want to do; they're not expected to fit into a cookie-cutter mold."

In another measure of optimism, those in the younger group were slightly more likely than older respondents to believe that their own efforts would matter more than broad trends beyond their control in determining whether they get ahead. While one-fourth of older respondents said the state of the economy (15 percent) or government policy (10 percent) would most determine their opportunities, just 14 percent of the younger group picked either of those options. Almost exactly two-thirds of the younger group picked either their educational background (36 percent) or "own skills and hard work" (30 percent). Among the older group, a slightly smaller three-fifths picked those personal characteristics.

In what could be a signal of growing concern about the opportunity for upward mobility, though, noticeable segments of the younger group also cited two other factors in determining individuals' success: their income level (10 percent) and racial background (8 percent). Combined, only 8 percent of the older group picked those two options. Strikingly, though, minorities in the younger group were no more likely than whites to pick race as the key factor in success and even less likely than whites to identify income. Instead, younger minorities were more likely than their white peers to point to education as the key to their personal success.  

The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll is the 23rd in a series examining how Americans are experiencing the changing economy. This poll explored what Americans consider the best choices in career, family, and community to achieve success in life, and how the perspective on those choices of those just starting out compares with older generations. The poll surveyed 900 adults by landline and cell phones from May 17 through 27, 2015, as well as an oversample of 200 young adults aged 18-24, also by landline and cell phone. These interviews were then weighted by age, gender, and race/ethnicity to produce a nationally representative sample of 1,000. A national survey of 1,000 respondents has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

The survey was supervised by Ed Reilly and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Consulting's Strategic Communications practice. On many topics throughout the survey, younger respondents were asked questions in the context of their current expectations and experiences, while older respondents were asked questions retrospectively referring to the time in which they were getting started.

Janie Boschma and Libby Isenstein contributed to this article