For the majority of Americans, the 2000s was a “lost decade,” with wages flatlining or declining. Middle-class jobs disappeared during the Great Recession and many have never come back. Instead, many of the fastest-growing sectors are those that pay the least. Median income remains below pre-recession levels. How is all of this influencing how Americans are feeling about the American dream?
Surveys continue to show that Americans, in large numbers, still believe in many of the tenets of the American dream. For example, majorities of Americans believe that hard work will lead to success. But, their belief in the American dream is wavering. Between 1986 and 2011, around 50 percent of those polled by Pew consistently said they felt that the American dream was “somewhat alive.” However, over that same time period, the share who said it was “very alive” decreased by about half, and the share that felt it was “not really alive” more than doubled.
Majorities of Americans think it will get worse in the future. Survey after survey finds that when asked about the next generation, Americans are pessimistic, saying that it will be harder and take more effort for the next generation to get ahead.
These gloomy sentiments may be part of a more general shift: The majority of Americans once thought the playing field was more or less level. No more. Back in 1998, a Gallup poll about equal opportunity found that 68 percent thought the economic system was basically fair, while only 29 percent thought it was basically unfair. In 2013, feelings about fairness had reversed: Only 44 percent thought the economic system was fair, while 50 percent had come to feel it was unfair. Another 2013 poll found that by an almost two-to-one margin (64 to 33 percent), Americans agreed that “the U.S. no longer offers an equal chance to get ahead.”
Perhaps as a result of all of this, there are signs that the very idea of the American dream is changing. The American dream has long been equated with moving up the class ladder and owning a home. But polling leading up to the 2012 election revealed something new—middle-class Americans expressed more concern about holding on to what they had than they were with getting more. Echoing these concerns, Pew reported in 2015 that when asked which they would prefer—financial security or moving up the income ladder—92 percent selected security. This is a seven percentage point increase since just 2011, when 85 percent selected security over economic mobility.
And while majorities of Americans continue to say that home ownership is a key part of the American dream in general, when a survey asked people which things were the most important to their personal American dream, only 26 percent selected “owning a nice home” as a top choice, while 37 percent chose “achieving financial security” and 36 percent chose “being debt free.” In a 2013 Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll that asked respondents to define what it means to be middle class, 54 percent of respondents chose “having the ability to keep up with expenses and hold a steady job while not falling behind or taking on too much debt,” and only 43 percent defined being middle class as earning more, buying a home, and saving.