Americans overall believe they have more opportunity than their parents, but whites are much more uncertain about their prospects than minorities. This question produced a sharp racial cleavage in the May 2011 Heartland Monitor survey. In that poll, 69 percent of African-Americans said they had more opportunity to get ahead than their parents; only 12 percent said they had less. Among Asians, the split was 67 percent more opportunity, 16 percent less; for Hispanics, the numbers were 62 and 17. But whites divided evenly, with 36 percent seeing more opportunity and 36 percent less. That pessimism was widespread in the white community: Whites with at least a four-year college degree were nearly as pessimistic as those without one.
By large margins, Americans believe they are exposed to more risk than earlier generations. A series of responses across the polls consistently show that preponderant majorities believe they are confronting greater financial risk than earlier generations. In the April 2009 survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans said they were exposed to more risks that threaten their standard of living than their parents were at the same age; just 11 percent thought they faced less risk. (Twenty-two percent thought they faced the same level of risk.) In the October 2009 poll, nearly four in five said it was likely that in the years ahead, “average families will suffer economic reversals, like losing a job or facing foreclosure on their homes, more often” than in the past. In the most recent poll, Americans split evenly on whether they will have a more or less secure retirement than their parents. However, those who are near retirement—workers who are at least 50 years old and still in the labor force—are much more likely to fear that their retirement will be more insecure.
This sense of insecurity has inspired a search for safe harbors. The disruption of the Great Recession has instilled a desire for stability and security, in the workplace and investments. In the April 2009 poll, 52 percent said they preferred investment products that offered guaranteed but lower rates of return; only 39 percent said they preferred investments that offered them a chance of higher rates but more risk.
In the July 2009 survey, nearly two-thirds said that their goal was a long-term job with a single employer; surprisingly, in the April 2010 survey, 55 percent of the millennial generation, fabled for preferring variety to stability, also echoed that sentiment. “I used to want more excitement, but now that I see people losing their jobs, and I’ve lost my job, stability has become my main goal,” said Heather Person, a young college graduate who responded to the poll. “I just want to be able to get a job, pay the bills, and pay down my debt.”
Americans remain confident in their ability to navigate the economic risks. Across a wide variety of questions, the survey reported that Americans retain a robust faith in their ability to determine the conditions of their own lives. Although the breadth and severity of the Great Recession offers evidence to the contrary, about three-fifths of adults said in three separate surveys that their financial security depends mostly on their own actions; less than two-fifths said that events out of their control determine it. (African-Americans and Hispanics were even more likely than whites to say that their fates rest in their own hands.) In the March 2011 survey, three-fourths of those polled agreed that “the American Dream is still possible and achievable for … people like you,” and nearly three-fifths said that their own efforts, rather than the state of the economy, would most determine whether they achieved it.
Along parallel tracks, Americans consistently have expressed confidence, perhaps excessively, in their ability to manage financial challenges. For instance, in a March 2011 survey, 91 percent of homeowners said they took on the right amount of debt (although a third of adults, in the same survey, blamed the housing crash primarily on homeowners—presumably other homeowners—who took on too much debt). In that December 2011 survey, only 13 percent said they had little confidence in their ability to make financial decisions for their retirement.
Americans may be expressing that confidence in part because they believe they are paddling alone. In the struggle to achieve opportunity and security, Americans consistently have placed more faith in their own effort than in intervention from any other source, public or private. In the April 2009 survey, more people picked their own exertions over government programs, further government regulation, or new private-sector initiatives when asked how they could best secure their retirement, build assets for their families, or retain a reliable income. Repeatedly, majorities have said that their faith in institutions—including government, major corporations, and national banks—to make decisions that benefit average families is declining.