The American Dream

Photo: Pete Zarria / Flickr

Findings by Generation

Despite the recession being officially over and unemployment the lowest it has been since 2007, the recovery has been felt unevenly. Barry Ritholtz in Bloomberg View explained why Americans hate the recovery from the Great Recession: many people are still unemployed or underemployed, and any wage increases have mostly been wiped away by escalating housing and healthcare costs.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that our survey shows that Americans believe the American Dream—from finding a well-paying job to supporting a family—is becoming more difficult to attain compared to their parents. Overall, 60 percent of respondents said that it is more difficult to find a well-paying job compared to their parents. The exception is the Silent Generation (ages 72 and over), whose parents grew up during the Great Depression.

This pattern also holds true when respondents are asked if it is becoming harder to afford a family than in previous generations. Overall, 64 percent of Americans believe it has become more difficult. In stark contrast, only 40 percent of the Silent Generation agrees.

Only about half of Americans (51 percent) believe that there are lots of well-paying jobs that do not require a college degree. Members of Generation X, who are in their prime earning years, are the least likely Americans to believe there are lots of well-paying jobs that do not require a college degree.

And while Americans are split on whether or not there are well-paying jobs available without a college degree, there is wide agreement (75 percent) that it is easier to be successful with a degree than without. Generation Z, which is just entering higher education or the workforce, overwhelmingly believes this to be the case (84 percent agree).

About half of Americans believe society respects those with a college degree more than those without. For the younger generations, this is especially the case: only 37 percent of Generation Z, 32 percent of Millennials, and 35 percent of Generation X believe that American society respects those who have not gone to college.

Findings by Race and Ethnicity

Following the 2016 presidential election, an analysis by Jeff Guo of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog revealed that while white working-class voters helped Donald Trump win the presidency, his victory is not connected to any actual decline in their economic mobility over the past four years. As it turns out, according to Guo, Trump outperformed Hillary Clinton in areas that have been in economic decline for years, places where unemployment was a little higher and median incomes were a little lower than the national average.

Our data, which were gathered right after the Trump inauguration, reflected this anxiety. White Americans were more likely to say in the survey that it is harder to find a well-paying job than it was for their parents (62 percent), compared to African Americans (56 percent), Asians (48 percent), and Hispanics (57 percent). Whites were also more likely to say that it is getting harder to afford a family (71 percent), than African Americans (55 percent), Asians (49 percent), and Hispanics (66 percent). 

This is unsurprising, given that familial history across the past two generations will be different for different ethnic groups. For example, a recent Hispanic immigrant might see current prospects as better than his parents’ prospects. An African American Baby Boomer might see her prospects as better than the pre-Civil Rights prospects of her parents.

Regardless of race, however, at least three out of four people think it is easier to be successful with a college degree than without.