What Is ‘Success’?

A new poll finds that Americans still value job stability and buying homes. They’re just less confident about the ability to achieve those goals.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Ben Britt of Atlanta measures the changes that have transformed the American economy over the past generation in the distance between his life in his late twenties and his father’s experiences at the same age.

Britt, 28, feels as if he is still just getting started. After high school, he spent years in odd jobs (farm work, road construction, landscaping) trying to save money to attend college. Now, he’s finally expecting to complete a four-year college degree in computer engineering in the spring of 2017. Once he has the degree, he’s hoping to find a job nearby that can launch a sustainable career—and then to move from the apartment he’s sharing with a roommate into a house he would own. He’s excited to step into a new stage of life—but conscious it has taken him much longer to reach it than his father needed in the 1980s.

“My father didn’t finish college,” Britt says. “He got into road construction and worked his way up in that company. That’s how he got settled in. He had a home by the time he was my age. His life was a lot more stable, I would say. [My goals] are mostly the same. It’s just that achieving them has become a lot tougher. For a lot of people, it has been pushed back further in years. Instead of settling down in your mid-twenties, a lot of people are waiting until they are 30 or their mid-thirties.”

Like Britt, many Americans believe the changing economy is rewriting the rules of success, the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll has found. Substantial portions of the population, the survey reports, are questioning the pathway that earlier generations considered the most likely route to achieving their personal and economic goals.

Through the first decades after World War II, most Americans might have agreed on the unwritten playbook for a successful life. Either after high school (for those who liked to work with their hands) or after college (for those drawn toward professional or managerial careers), young people would find a job with a stable company and work their way up the ladder, as Britt’s father did. They would borrow money to buy a home, get married, raise children they would position to climb higher than they did, then comfortably put their feet up in retirement sometime in their sixties.

The latest Heartland poll indicates that many Americans are now rethinking key elements of that consensus—and are also questioning their ability to reach many of those milestones. These results reinforce earlier findings in the poll. It found, on the one hand, that most Americans believe their success still depends mostly on their own actions and that they are living the American Dream; on the other, it discovered they also feel that, compared to earlier generations, they are exposed to more economic risk and enjoy fewer opportunities.

Together, those results capture the precarious mix of optimism and pessimism that now characterizes many Americans’ attitudes about the economy: a sense that success is still possible, but that the path to financial security is more complex, unstable, and mercurial than in the past.

“You have to be viable in a world where a lot of things are changing and you might not know exactly which way it’s going to go and which is the best type of education to get to be able to sustain yourself,” said Tamela, a 48-year-old respondent in southern Illinois, who asked not to reveal her last name.

This questioning of the post-World War II bargain that is evident in the new poll begins with education. Asked if “young people today need a four-year college education in order to be successful,” just 47 percent of those surveyed said yes; a narrow majority of 52 percent said no. That represents a decline of faith in post-secondary education since the Heartland poll in July 2009, when 54 percent agreed that a four-year degree was necessary and 44 percent did not.

In the new survey, African Americans (at 51 percent) and Hispanics (at 60 percent) were more likely than whites (at 44 percent) to view college as necessary. Women (at 51 percent) were much more likely than men (at 42 percent) to consider college indispensable.

Combining race and gender also produced striking contrasts. It might not be surprising that only 37 percent of white men without a college degree considered such an advanced credential necessary for success. “Hard work pays off,” says James Bishop, 41, a white distribution-center manager who didn’t obtain a college degree. “Of course, doctors and lawyers need a lot more than that, but just for regular management or something like that, I don’t think you need four years.”

More surprisingly, only 40 percent of white men who hold a college degree viewed it as necessary, while a solid majority of 59 percent did not. White women were considerably more likely to value the degree: 47 percent of white women who haven’t finished college thought it necessary, as did 52 percent of white women who have.

The generational contrast was notable, too. Members of Generation X (at 51 percent) and the respondents born before the mid-1940s (at 52 percent) were the likeliest to see a degree as necessary. Although Millennials will likely become the most educated generation in history, they split narrowly on college’s value (46 percent view a degree as necessary, 54 percent don’t). Baby boomers, nearing the end of their working careers, were the least persuaded: just 42 percent of them see a degree as necessary, while 57 percent do not.

In follow-up interviews, many young respondents described higher education as a kind of Catch-22. It was risky to pursue because it could smother them with debt. But it was also risky not to pursue because the lack of a degree could hobble them in the job market. “To get somewhere, you have to have [more] education than somebody else,” said Nathaniel Hill, a 20-year-old in Spokane who is studying to become an aircraft mechanic. “But that costs a lot of money.”

The need for a college education also produced a big partisan gap. Democrats considered a college degree necessary for success, by a solid margin of 58 percent to 41 percent. But the numbers were almost exactly reversed among both independents (42 percent yes, 57 percent no) and Republicans (41 percent yes, 58 percent no).

This questioning of old verities also extends to the value of homeownership. In earlier Heartland Monitor polls, most Americans have said they still personally aspire to own a home. But the new survey finds faltering confidence that mass homeownership benefits society overall.

Just 42 percent of those surveyed said the trend of increasing homeownership has mostly produced “communities that are more stable” by encouraging “people to put down roots, … start families, and become responsible and active citizens.” A majority of 53 percent endorsed the competing, negative statement that more homeownership “has resulted in communities that are less stable [because it] has encouraged people to take on too much debt.”

Only minor demographic differences separate attitudes on this issue. Blacks and Hispanics, who suffered more in the housing crash of 2007, were slightly more negative than whites on the impact of promoting homeownership—but majorities of all three groups endorsed the negative statement. So did majorities of men and women and of respondents of all ages except the oldest; only among respondents born before the mid-1940s did a majority see homeownership exerting a positive impact on communities.

Americans are down on debt, too, the survey found. Just 36 percent of those polled agreed that “personal debt provides a path to achieving the American dream by making it possible for people to borrow against their future earnings to pay for college, start a business, finance a car, and buy a home.” Instead, a solid majority of 57 percent endorsed the alternative statement that “Personal debt creates an obstacle to achieving the American Dream by encouraging people to spend beyond their means, burdening them with high levels of debt and many years of interest payments.”

On the question of debt, the demographic differences are even more muted. Majorities of whites, blacks, and Hispanics; men and women; Republicans, Democrats, and independents; and members of every generation say that debt creates more obstacles than opportunities.

This latest survey didn’t ask respondents about the career path that offered the best chance of success. But the Heartland Monitor poll did so last May, and on that score, too, it found some erosion in the late-20th-century assumptions.

The survey last May divided Americans into two categories. It defined “older” respondents as those older than 30 or 25-to-29-year-olds who described themselves as no longer “starting out.” It defined “younger” respondents as anyone of ages 18 to 24 as well as 25- to 29-year-olds who said they were still “starting out.” In the poll, a 53-percent majority of those older respondents said they believed they’d have been better off working for a single employer through their career; only 38 percent thought they would have done better by switching many times between employers. Younger respondents, though, tilted slightly the other way; 49 percent said they believed they would be better off frequently changing employers, and 47 percent preferred stability at one job.

The latest Heartland poll also asked Americans to rank the chances, on a scale of 1 to 10, for people like them to achieve landmark financial goals. Americans were most optimistic about the ability of people like them to own a home—63 percent rated their chances as 7 or higher. Americans were also optimistic about the ability of people like them to graduate from college: 62 percent rated their odds as 7 or greater. A smaller majority—55 percent—expressed comparable optimism about the likelihood that people like them could raise children and ensure that “they have more opportunity than you did.”

Other milestones drew more equivocal responses. Just 51 percent expressed high confidence in the ability of people like them “to pursue a rewarding career wherever it takes you.” Just 41 percent expressed that much confidence in the ability to retire “comfortably in the way and at the time you expect.” Merely 25 percent thought people like them had such a strong chance of becoming wealthy.

Several of these results differed little from the findings in a March 2011 survey. But the new poll saw a notable drop in the percentage of respondents who thought people like them could provide their family with more opportunity (65 percent then, 55 percent now) or could pursue a rewarding career (down from 61 percent to 51 percent). Men and women didn’t differ much in their assessments in the new poll. Nor did whites and racial minorities, except on one point: Just 52 percent of whites expressed high confidence in the ability of people like them to raise a family with greater opportunity than they have had, compared to 61 percent of African Americans and 68 percent of Hispanics. That tracks other findings in the survey showing whites more pessimistic than minorities about the opportunities that will be available to today’s kids.

The generational contrast on these questions about achieving important life goals may be the most telling. Members of the Millennial generation were the most confident on all of them except one (the ability to retire comfortably, on which respondents in the oldest, mostly retired generations expressed greater confidence). Baby boomers, by stark contrast, were the most pessimistic on several questions. Fewer than half of them were confident, for instance, they could raise a family with greater opportunities than they have had, and not even two-fifths felt confident about retiring comfortably (though members of Generation X were even gloomier about their golden years).

The economic frustration of the preponderantly white baby boom may help explain its steady movement in recent elections toward Republicans offering a message of lower taxes-and also the generation’s largely negative reaction to the nation’s growing diversity that the survey also documented.

One thing seems clear: Almost everyone agrees that balancing opportunity and security on the one hand, and success at home and at work on the other, has grown more complex and confounding. “It’s hard to make money and have a home life,” said Bishop, the distribution-center manager. “When you make good money with a company, they more or less own you. Everyone’s walking on eggshells in case their job is going to fold and they’re going to lose it. With the job I’m in, our market’s up right now, so that’s a plus. But you just can’t have that safety net anymore.”

Janie Boschma contributed to this article.

The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll is the 25th in a series examining how Americans are experiencing the changing economy. This poll reprises central questions that the survey has explored, mostly in its first two years, to document how American attitudes have changed since the Great Recession. It surveyed 1,000 adults by landline and cell phones from Jan. 2 to Jan. 6, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The survey was supervised by Ed Reilly and Joseph McMahon of FTI Consulting’s strategic communications practice.