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Rewriting the Rules of Success

by Ronald Brownstein   |   January 29, 2016



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.”

–Na­tion­al Journ­al data journ­al­ist Janie Boschma con­trib­uted.

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.

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