America's Growing Pessimism

A recent poll shows that people are worried about education, the elderly, and the decisions of business leaders and the government.  

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When Americans look to the future, two mega-trends evoke the most optimism about the nation’s long-term trajectory, the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll has found.

One of these trends, the onset of the digital revolution, evokes optimism in every major segment of society. But the second one, the nation’s growing racial and ethnic diversity, divides Americans along lines of race, generation, and, above all, partisanship, thereby illuminating some of the fault lines in modern American life.

The new poll asked respondents to consider whether six of the social and economic dynamics that are crucial to the nation’s future make them “more optimistic or more pessimistic about the direction the country is headed.” Only two of the six trends made a majority of respondents feel more optimistic. A resounding 78 percent said “continuing advances in computer and communications technology” made them feel better about the nation’s future; only 17 percent said they felt worse. As for “America’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity,” a less emphatic but still solid 57 percent said it made them cheerier about the country’s future, while 32 percent said it heightened their pessimism.

But the feelings of optimism ended there. The other four trends polled found less than a majority of respondents who felt good about the long-term impact of: the quality of the nation’s education system; the growing number of elderly as Baby Boomers retire; the quality of decisions made by corporate leaders; and the way the government works, or doesn’t, in Washington.

Optimism can engender consensus, as the digital revolution has shown. The survey found Republicans and independents (both at 77 percent) almost as likely as Democrats (at 81 percent) to view it as a cause for optimism. Racial differences, too, were muted: While Hispanics (89 percent) and African Americans (81 percent) were particularly enthusiastic, 75 percent of whites also found it a reason for hope.

Timothy Campbell, who is white, works for a nonprofit organization focused on children’s health in Salisbury, North Carolina, and he is optimistic about the digital developments. “Technology has opened opportunity in a variety of ways in creating kinds of jobs that people never could have imagined would exist before the sorts of technologies that we’ve seen recently came along,” the 27-year-old said. Someday, technology may stop creating so many jobs, he added, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Equally encouraged is Melissa Graham, a 45-year-old African American who is a former communications worker from Philadelphia. “I have seen things come so far along it’s almost mind-boggling,” she said. “I feel very optimistic about where we’re headed with that.”

Differences in reactions to the digital advances were wider along lines of education. Both whites and minorities who hold at least a four-year college degree were about 10 percentage points more likely than respondents without one to view the communications and computing gains in a positive light. Even so, a whopping 80 percent of nonwhites—and 70 percent of whites—who didn’t finish college said the digital advances made them mostly optimistic.

Income told a similar story: Adults from households earning at least $100,000 annually were the most enthusiastic (88 percent) about these trends, but even 70 percent of those earning less than $30,000 said the digital advances mostly made them hopeful for the nation’s future. Across all ages, too, preponderant majorities expressed optimism, including 83 percent of Millennials (born since 1981), 79 percent of Generation-Xers (born 1965 to 1980), 75 percent of Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964), and 64 percent of Americans born in 1945 or earlier.

That counts as optimism about the fun stuff—smartphones and the like. The consensus starts to falter, however, when it comes to the historic wave of racial and ethnic diversity that is projected to reduce white Americans to less than half of the U.S. population by 2043—and to less than half of the under-18 population before 2020.

That prospect drew sharply divergent responses along lines that track fissures visible in the 2016 presidential race. While Democrats and Democratic-leaning constituencies mostly viewed these changes as a reason for optimism about the nation’s future, Republicans and many Republican-leaning constituencies viewed them much more warily.

The first difference cuts across racial lines: While 67 percent of Hispanics and 65 percent of African Americans said the increasing diversity made them mostly optimistic about the nation’s future, only 53 percent of whites agreed. Whites with at least a four-year college degree were more likely to express optimism (58 percent) than whites without a degree (49 percent optimistic, 38 percent pessimistic).

The generational contrast was starker still. Optimism about the long-term impact of growing diversity declined as respondents got older: While 73 percent of Millennials said the changes made them mostly hopeful, the proportion fell to 56 percent of Generation-Xers, 48 percent of Baby Boomers, and just 38 percent of the oldest Americans. In part, that reflected the fact that Millennials form the most racially diverse generation; minorities comprise more than two-fifths of its members. But it also revealed a sharp generation gap among whites. Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of white Americans younger than 50 said the nation’s growing diversity makes them mostly optimistic. But among whites 50 and older, just 41 percent agreed, and 44 percent voiced pessimism.

Politically, these trends converge to produce a chasm between the parties over the long-term impact of America’s growing diversity. The Republican electoral coalition now relies heavily on blue-collar and older whites, while Democrats depend mostly on Millennials, minorities, and socially liberal whites with a college education. By an overwhelming margin of 67 percent to 26 percent, more Democrats are optimistic than pessimistic about the implications of these demographic changes for America’s future. Independents are nearly as sunny: 57 percent of them say they’re pleased, compared to 33 percent who fear the implications.

Campbell, a college-educated white Democrat, is encouraged by the changes in the nation’s racial and ethnic makeup. “By increasing diversity, by increasing acceptance of different viewpoints and of different cultural backgrounds, different expectations, there’s more opportunities to look at problems from different angles, more opportunities to involve cultures in fields that have previously felt closed off to [minorities],” he said.

But Republicans divide almost exactly in half: 42 percent voiced optimism about the impact of increasing diversity on the nation’s future, and 43 percent said it makes them more pessimistic. That deep pool of Republicans uneasy about the nation’s demographic transition has been reflected in a GOP presidential race dominated by cultural issues such as immigration and the loyalty of American Muslims.

Richard Kunath, a retired 82-year-old white construction worker and Republican in Temecula, California, is one who feels unsettled. “I know a lot of black people on the West Coast; they’re doing great, they’re super people,” he said. “But too many black people are on welfare, and the government’s taking care of them. I feel sorry for them. We abolished slavery, but we put the black people back into slavery by having them depend on the U.S. government to take care of them. In this area, you go to a job site and nobody can speak English. They’re all Hispanic. You don’t find any American framers or carpenters or dry-wallers or electricians on these jobs. It’s sad.”

Thelma Roddy, a 64-year-old white Republican in Lumberton, Texas, who now provides care for her grandchildren, also raised alarms. “Our government wants us to be divided against each other,” she said. “These false flags, like the [police] shootings, I think that is orchestrated to pit blacks against whites. It’s sad, because we have come so far away from that.”

Similar divisions surfaced when the Heartland Monitor survey asked Americans to assess the long-term impact of “the quality of our primary and secondary education system and our colleges.” Overall, 43 percent said the education system’s performance made them mostly optimistic about the nation’s future, while 51 percent professed mostly pessimism.

Once again, African Americans (59 percent) and Hispanics (53 percent) were much more likely than whites (just 37 percent) to express optimism about the impact of the education system. Millennials, again, were more optimistic (50 percent) than older generations, particularly Baby Boomers (just 36 percent) and the oldest respondents (39 percent). Upper-income respondents generally expressed less optimism about the schools than those who earned less. Ironically, college-educated whites—arguably, the element of American society that has benefited the most from the nation’s schools—were the least impressed; only 29 percent said the education system made them more optimistic about the future. The partisan gap, too, was large, although political independents (37 percent) aligned with Republicans (36 percent) as far less optimistic than Democrats (52 percent).

Americans feel even unhappier about the other three trends the Heartland Monitor Poll tested. On the long-term implications of “the growing number of seniors as the Baby Boom retires,” just 36 percent of those surveyed registered optimism, while 47 percent were pessimistic. Racial and partisan differences persisted; African Americans were more likely than Hispanics or whites to feel hopeful about the coming elderly boom, and Democrats were likelier to look favorably on it than independents or Republicans were. Yet strikingly, this issue of generational change produced no generation gap in attitudes. In fact, more Millennials than Baby Boomers (44 percent to 39 percent) expressed optimism about the increasing number of seniors.

Graham, the former communications worker from Philadelphia, said she didn’t worry about the impact of more seniors on society but, instead, about society’s willingness to care for more seniors. “There’s so many of them that [I wonder if] they’re going to have the quality of care that will be needed,” she said. “I see it today. My father and my mother are both Baby Boomers, and my father is currently in a nursing home. I don’t think he gets quality care. I think the system is overwhelmed with people in their 60s, 70s.”

The final two measures tested returned more consensus, but in a thumbs-down way, reflecting the long-standing Heartland Monitor finding of tarnished confidence in the nation’s major institutions. A mere 29 percent of respondents said “the decisions being made by the leaders of major corporations” made them more optimistic about the nation’s future. Exactly twice as many (58 percent) said those decisions made them more pessimistic. These results varied only modestly by age (though Baby Boomers were especially pessimistic), by race, or even by income (just 29 percent of those earning at least $100,000 expressed optimism about corporate decision-making, compared to 26 percent of those earning less than $30,000). The biggest difference, again, was across partisan lines: Republicans (at 47 percent) were far more likely than Democrats (26 percent) or independents (21 percent) to be sanguine about the performance of corporate chieftains.

The view of government’s impact was even darker. Just 19 percent of those surveyed said they drew optimism about the nation’s future from “the way the government in Washington works”; fully 73 percent said it made them more pessimistic. Looking at the results by generation, Millennials were the likeliest to offer a positive response, but even their optimism (27 percent) was uninspired. Similarly, Democrats (26 percent) were not much sunnier about government than independents (19 percent) and Republicans (just 9 percent) were. The racial gap was wider: While just over a third of all minorities saw reason for optimism in government’s performance, only one in eight whites agreed.

In follow-up interviews, Republicans and Democrats alike lamented that political leaders have lost the capacity to forge consensus. “The ability to compromise has actually become stigmatized,” said Campbell, the North Carolina Democrat. “Those who are capable of reaching across the aisle from either direction are being lambasted by their own party members to get in line.”

Roddy, the Texas Republican, didn’t differ much. “I think they need term limits for everybody,” she said. “They’ve been in office too long and they’ve settled in. They’re not working for Americans anymore. You’re either Democrat or Republican—forget that you’re American and fighting for America and working for the good of America.”