That tilt is one of several measures in the poll that show how years of economic strain are elevating the role of security in Americans’ definition of success. In a comparable finding, a resounding 56 percent said they would prefer a job that “offers a great deal of job security but only modest pay and little opportunity for advancement” over one that offered more opportunity “and the possibility of high pay but little job security.” Patience, a young homemaker in Hesperia, Mich., who is looking for work, reflected that majority when she said that her priority “is not so much promotions; it’s job security. I want my job to be there no matter what.”
Another finding underlines the public’s increasing emphasis on security. In the survey, a 51 percent majority agreed that “because of the recent economic downturn,” getting ahead these days in essence means not falling behind: “holding a job, being able to pay bills, avoid debt, and save some money for the future.” Only 45 percent said they still defined getting ahead in the traditional manner of “advancing in a job and achieving greater financial success each year.” Naomi Pittman, a nursing instructor at a college in Sanford, Fla., says that her definition of success has changed as she has watched her children struggle with unemployment and seen older students cascade into her courses because they’ve lost their jobs. “That has changed for me,” she says. “Getting ahead means that you’re able to maintain a certain standard of living. There’s very little security in the workplace—it’s not like it used to be.” (Blue-collar whites were especially likely to say they have redefined getting ahead as not falling behind.)
But in their own lives, and in their expectations for the country, most Americans are bracing for more trouble. Looking back at their own experiences, only about one in five say they have “been able to get ahead consistently.” Many more (55 percent) say they have been “able to get ahead somewhat, [but] with ups and downs.” And most people are not expecting much to change: Only one-fourth say they expect to get ahead consistently over the next five or 10 years, while the remainder anticipate rising with ups and downs (about two-fifths); remaining stuck in place (about one-fifth); or declining (about one in 10). Blue-collar whites are more likely than either college-educated whites or minorities to say they expect to remain stuck or slip back. “It’s just getting harder and harder to make what I think I should be earning,” Coe says.
Asked to identify the principal barriers to getting ahead in modern America, those polled grouped the challenges in three rough tiers. Relatively smaller numbers identified a failure by Americans to work as hard as previous generations (44 percent), or immigrants competing for jobs (38 percent), or declining unions (34 percent). About three-fifths identified each of three other culprits: taxes and government regulations; failures in the educational system; and an economic system that is now providing too many benefits “to big companies and the richest Americans.” About two-thirds cited three other reasons: competition for work from other countries; rising prices; and the increasing cost of higher education. But, by far, the most frequently identified barrier to getting ahead (at 79 percent) was American companies sending jobs overseas. “We have seen so many jobs disappear over the past 15 years,” says Rufus Getzen, a retired government geologist in Wadesboro, N.C. “The Information Age is great for a minority of people. But you are never going to have everybody financing cars if nobody is building cars.”
The obstacles to advancement that most worry Americans in that question don’t consistently align with either party’s agenda. Instead, the public skittered between traditional priorities of the Right (taxes and regulation) and the Left (inequality, rising cost of higher education) and ultimately raised the greatest alarm about long-term global investment patterns of American companies that neither party believes it can influence much more than marginally. While the parties duel over the role of government (in a calcified argument that, the survey shows, has left neither with a national majority for its position), more Americans appear uncertain that either side can meaningfully address the employment and income challenges they face.
That doubt may help explain why neither party has established any lasting advantage over the other in recent years. It also frames the picture emerging from this poll of a wary but resilient public that is systematically adjusting itself, more by necessity than choice, to an economic order in which nothing is more predictable than uncertainty.
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed
This article appears in the Sep. 29, 2012, edition of National Journal.