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.”