The American Dream: Personal Optimists, National Pessimists

A survey reveals a huge gap between Americans’ pessimism about the nation and their optimism about their own lives.

You can barely open a newspaper these days without reading how the American Dream is dying—hobbled by the troubled economy, divisive politics, threats from abroad, or some other intractable challenge. And if you ask Americans how the nation is doing—as we did in a Penn Schoen Berland poll of about 2,000 Americans from June 8 to 19, 2015, commissioned for The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute for the 11th Aspen Ideas Festival—they will indeed say in large majorities that the American Dream is suffering (75 percent), that obstacles to realizing the Dream are “more severe today than ever” (69 percent), and that overall the nation is on the wrong track (64 percent).

But here’s what’s remarkable about all this pessimism about America: It bears very little resemblance to what people actually feel about their own lives. Seventy-two percent of respondents say they are living the American Dream or expect to—50 percent who are living it now and another 22 percent who believe they can attain it in their lifetime. Other satisfaction measures are as high or higher: 67 percent feel secure about their personal financial situation; 72 percent are happy in their jobs; 85 percent of respondents are satisfied with their lives; and 86 percent are optimistic about the future. In what is perhaps the most telling finding about the state of America’s self-perception, nearly 7 in 10 respondents describe themselves as “middle class.”

The young feel this exuberance most acutely, as might be expected, but so too do racial minorities. Seventy-seven percent of Millennials say they’re living the dream or believe they can; among African Americans and Asian Americans, that number rises to 82 percent. Among Latinos, it’s 83 percent. This is a far cry from the early to mid-2000s, when Gallup polls showed African Americans were the least satisfied with the state of the nation—generally by about 20 points, the reverse of what it is today. And it contrasts with a recent run of media accounts saying minorities have lost faith in the American Dream.

We’ve seen this gap between national pessimism and personal optimism before. In March 1996, when President Clinton was seeking re-election, 61 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with the direction of the country and 66 percent thought economic conditions were only fair or poor. But research showed that Americans were actually very optimistic about their own lives. President Clinton tapped into this sentiment and ran an upbeat campaign focused on “Building a Bridge to the 21st Century.” Today, presidential candidates on both sides appear to be taking a different tack, focusing on the nation’s hurdles rather than its opportunities and accomplishments. They are accurately reading voters’ societal pessimism. But if candidates were to tap into voters’ personal optimism, they might find an opening to consolidate the nation around a shared sense of hope.

Beyond the pessimism-optimism gap, our American Dream survey points up five other key trends. First, the Millennial Generation—for all the talk about it wanting to do good in the world—shows signs of being another “Me Generation.” Respondents 30 and under were the only age group to name as the top element of their dream job: “pays a lot of money.” Whereas 22 percent of respondents 65+ and 19 percent of those 51-64 said “helping others” was most important to their personal American Dream, only 14 percent of Millennials did. Rather, what this age group ranked first (after “being debt-free”) was “pursuing happiness,” which they chose at almost twice the rate of 51-64 and more than twice the rate of Americans 65+. Millennials even ranked the cluster of luxury items—like “traveling to other countries,” “driving a nice car,” and “belonging to exclusive clubs or organizations” —higher than any other age cohort. This generation grew up with more technology and far more education than other generations, while facing no military draft and enjoying far more permissive parenting. That is likely why the poll shows a strong resurgence of materialistic desire among this rising generation.

A second emerging insight is that Americans 51-64, especially white Americans of that age, are feeling more negative than any other age group. Only 63 percent of that group thinks they are living the dream or still will, compared to at least 73 percent for every other age group. Twenty percent of these respondents are pessimistic about their future (including 23 percent of whites), while overall, only 15 percent feel so down. This despair may stem from the burdens of caring for growing children, aging parents, and themselves: 36 percent of respondents 51-64 named healthcare costs as the most significant problem in America—7 points higher than any other age group and 12 points higher than they named any other problem. It may also be that these are the people who were just hitting their stride when the 2008-09 financial crisis hit, and they haven’t recovered from the loss of those critical earning years.

Third, the definition of the American Dream itself is shifting. If in the past, the hallmarks of the Dream were a white picket fence and a couple of children, now just over one in four respondents names “owning a nice home” as the most important ingredient of the American Dream, and only 14 percent name “having kids.” What respondents prioritize instead is flexibility and economic security: top elements of the Dream are now “living comfortably” (41 percent); “achieving financial security” (37 percent); “being debt-free” (36 percent); and “providing a comfortable quality of life for [my] family” (35 percent). Proponents of marriage and childrearing need not totally despair, however—when asked specifically about the role of marriage and kids in the American Dream, nearly two-thirds of respondents 30 and under—a higher rate than any other age group—said both are important to their Dream.

Fourth, Americans see substantial barriers to the American Dream, with the most common theme being lack of opportunity, including “rules favor the wealthy” and “economic inequality.” Republicans also tend to blame big government, as well as values-based barriers like a declining work ethic and a slump in moral standards. But while Americans vehemently agree that they need solutions—68 percent say action needs to be taken “immediately”—they are just as divided on solutions. Republicans want to reduce big government—cutting spending, taxes, and regulation; Democrats want to expand access and opportunity, including making college free or much more affordable, expanding access to free healthcare, and improving access to quality education in poor communities. That party-line split may be familiar, but take note: Independents are only 8 points away from Democrats on their sense of the nation’s problems, and 13 to 20 points away from Republicans. Not since Reagan captured many disaffected blue-collar voters has there been such potential for America’s Independents to swing so sharply in one direction.

Finally, amid all the ups and downs of the last decade, there’s an undercurrent of resilience about the American Dream that suggests it’s more about opportunity than outcome. More than six in ten Americans believe the Dream can best be accomplished with hard work, compared to only 28 percent who say “circumstances of birth” and 11 percent who say “luck.” And Americans remain comfortable with the idea that outcomes do not have to be spread equally and the Dream will play out differently for different people. Nearly two-thirds agree with the statement “As long as I am able to provide the life I want for myself and my family, it doesn’t matter if others are substantially wealthier than [I]”—compared to only 36 percent who say, “The concentration of wealth and privilege within the top one percent of American society is a problem.” More than three-quarters of Americans believe that so long as people have “roughly the same opportunities” to achieve their goals based on effort and merit, it is “still okay” that some people do not achieve them.

The American Dream is alive and well, in living rooms if not in the national psyche. As the 2016 election season heats up, pundits and policymakers should take note of not just the changing truths about race, age, and party, but also this gap between national pessimism and personal optimism. Sometimes the truths people live are more important than the ones they may fear.

Don Baer and Mark Penn presented these findings at the Aspen Ideas Festival on July 1, 2015.