For the past several decades, it seems there’s been a general consensus on how to get ahead in America: Get a college education, find a reliable job, and buy your own home.
But do Americans still believe in that path, and if they do, is it attainable?
The most recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll asked respondents about the American dream, what it takes to achieve their goals, and whether or not they felt a significant amount of control over their ability to be successful. Overwhelmingly, the results show that today, the idea of the American dream—and what it takes to achieve it—looks quite different than it did in the late 20th century.
By and large, people felt that that their actions and hard work—not outside forces—were the deciding factor in how their lives turned out. But respondents had decidedly mixed feelings about what actions make for a better life in the current economy. For example, most Americans now see personal debt as an obstacle to success. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said that debt encourages people to spend beyond their means, and become burdened with years of interest payments. Unsurprisingly, the only exception were students, the majority of whom still see personal debt as a road to opportunity, since investing in a college degree can result in lower unemployment rates and higher wages. And that’s important, since respondents were split on whether or not incomes would grow faster or slower than they have in the past.
In the last seven years, Americans have grown more pessimistic about the power of education to lead to success. Even though they see going to college as a fairly achievable goal, a majority—52 percent—think that young people do not need a four-year college education in order to be successful, compared to 44 percent when the same question was posed in 2009.