Amid rising inequality and thinning of the middle class over the past three decades, new survey evidence shows that there is overwhelming enthusiasm among Gen Z and Millennials: 79% of them report that they believe their lives will be at least as good as their parents’. Blacks and Hispanics are especially optimistic about their futures, providing new grounds for optimism in the American Dream.
A recent survey on a sample of 4,004 respondents (2,002 for Gen Z and 2,002 for Millennials), commissioned by the Walton Foundation and fielded by Dynata between June 17-26, offers additional optimism: 85% of Gen Z respondents believe that they will be the same as or better off than their parents (and 74% of Millennials). Only 8% and 16% believe they will be worse off than their parents.
When you partition further, you find that 83% of those between ages 13-17 say that they believe they can achieve the “American dream,” whereas it’s 61% among those between ages 18-23 and 24-31.
And, while some might think that optimism about the future is split by race, the results actually go in the opposite direction: Blacks and Hispanics are the most likely to expect that they are going to have a better life than their parents. For example, whereas only 42% of Whites expect they will have a life that is better than their parents, 59% and 57% of Blacks and Hispanics, respectively, think that they will.
Importantly, the American dream is becoming less of a homogeneous construct and more about opportunity. For example, one survey respondent remarked that “the American dream is not about the items but the opportunity you have.” Similarly, another remarked that “the American dream promises a chance at equal opportunity, essentially granting you freedom and social and economic mobility without restrictions.” There is no one-size-fits-all opportunity.
The definition of opportunity is changing. For example, it has less to do about financial well-being and more to do with autonomy. Indeed, Millennials are much less likely to own homes, reflecting, in part, a desire for greater geographic mobility and autonomy over the stereotypical “white picket fence home.” For example, 20% said that “freedom, choosing whatever you want to be, the life you want” ranked as the most important reason for their choice. Although 19% said financial well-being, it’s noteworthy that they are tied.
These survey results are also consistent with a more comprehensive evaluation by Michael Strain in his recently-published book, The American Dream is Not Dead. He shows, for example, that after accounting for taxes and transfers, together with inflation, the American worker’s standard of living has improved quite a bit. Moreover, there’s been a lot of upward mobility into high-tech services, which is consistent with my research on the expansion of the digital labor force.
Press Forward In The Face Of Uncertainty
Admittedly, COVID-19 has made life more challenging. 20% said that the pandemic has made it a lot harder to succeed in life, but 42% and 30% said that it only made it a little or not at all harder.
Nonetheless, the good news is that the pandemic has not fundamentally altered individuals’ sense of optimism about the future: 66% believe that it is a transient shock. One respondent remarked that: “COVID-19 has caused people in my generation to modify their path towards their goals and may have hindered some in the short term, but I don't think it will ultimately determine if they are successful or not.”
That’s not to say there are not important challenges on the horizon, ranging from access to educational investments and a more egalitarian society. But, there’s never been a time without challenges: what matters is that we have the will to press forward and be part of the solution.
Gen Z and Millennials teach us the importance of having childlike faith about the future. Even when we’ve tried something that didn’t work out, that shouldn’t shake our confidence in the future. We need to be persistent and resilient. As we reflect on Columbus Day during this atypical year, let’s remember that the same entrepreneurial spirit that has driven our country to new heights is still within our reach—and much more if we only continue to press forward.