Heartland Monitor Poll

How Younger Americans Are Redefining Success

New Heartland Monitor poll finds Americans agree it’s harder to get started as an adult than in the past.

National Journal
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Ronald Brownstein
June 11, 2015, 2:30 a.m.

Against a back­drop of tu­mul­tu­ous eco­nom­ic and demo­graph­ic change, young­er Amer­ic­ans are draw­ing a new 21st-cen­tury road map to suc­cess, the latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll has found.

Across gen­er­a­tion­al lines, Amer­ic­ans con­tin­ue to prize many of the same tra­di­tion­al mile­stones of a suc­cess­ful life, in­clud­ing get­ting mar­ried, hav­ing chil­dren, own­ing a home, and re­tir­ing in their six­ties. But while young and old mostly agree on what con­sti­tutes the fin­ish line of a ful­filling life, they of­fer strik­ingly dif­fer­ent paths for reach­ing it.

Young people who are still get­ting star­ted in life were more likely than older adults to pri­or­it­ize per­son­al ful­fill­ment in their work, to be­lieve they will ad­vance their ca­reers most by reg­u­larly chan­ging jobs, to fa­vor com­munit­ies with more pub­lic ser­vices and a faster pace of life, to agree that couples should be fin­an­cially se­cure be­fore get­ting mar­ried or hav­ing chil­dren, and to main­tain that chil­dren are best served by two par­ents work­ing out­side the home, the sur­vey found.

From ca­reer to com­munity and fam­ily, these con­trasts sug­gest that in the af­ter­math of the sear­ing Great Re­ces­sion, those just start­ing out in life are de­fin­ing pri­or­it­ies and ex­pect­a­tions that will in­creas­ingly ripple through vir­tu­ally all as­pects of Amer­ic­an life, from con­sumer pref­er­ences to hous­ing pat­terns to polit­ics.

Young and old con­verge on one key point: Pre­pon­der­ant ma­jor­it­ies of both groups said they be­lieve it is harder for young people today to get star­ted in life than it was for earli­er gen­er­a­tions. While young­er people are some­what more op­tim­ist­ic than their eld­ers about the pro­spects for those start­ing out today, big ma­jor­it­ies in both groups be­lieve those “just get­ting star­ted in life” face a tough­er climb than earli­er gen­er­a­tions in reach­ing such sign­post achieve­ments as se­cur­ing a good-pay­ing job, start­ing a fam­ily, man­aging debt, and find­ing af­ford­able hous­ing.

Pete Schneider con­siders the climb tough­er today. Schneider, a 27-year-old auto tech­ni­cian from the Chica­go sub­urbs, says he struggled to find a job after gradu­at­ing from col­lege. Even now that he is work­ing stead­ily, he said, “I can’t af­ford to pay my monthly mort­gage pay­ments on my own, so I have to rent rooms out to people to make that hap­pen.” Look­ing back, he is struck that his par­ents could provide a com­fort­able life for their chil­dren even though neither had com­pleted col­lege when he was young. “I still grew up in an up­per middle-class home with par­ents who didn’t have col­lege de­grees,” Schneider said. “I don’t think people are cap­able of that any­more.”

Over­all, fully 78 per­cent of adults agreed that “com­pared to earli­er gen­er­a­tions “¦ it is cur­rently harder” for young people today “to get star­ted in life.” Just 16 per­cent of those sur­veyed thought it was easi­er for young people to get star­ted today.

The latest Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll of­fers a de­tailed look at what Amer­ic­ans con­sider the path to suc­cess in today’s eco­nomy. The res­ults, which Na­tion­al Journ­al and The At­lantic will re­port in a series of stor­ies over the next two weeks, ex­am­ines the de­cisions that those just start­ing out in life be­lieve will take them to their goals — and how that map dif­fers from the course that earli­er gen­er­a­tions fol­lowed.

To com­pare at­ti­tudes across gen­er­a­tions, the poll di­vided re­spond­ents in­to two broad groups — a young­er co­hort that qual­i­fies as still start­ing out, and an older co­hort that has passed that ini­tial stage of life. The poll defined the young­er co­hort as all adults aged 18 to 24, as well as the nearly three-quar­ters of those aged 25 to 29 who iden­ti­fied them­selves as “still ‘get­ting star­ted in life,’” after re­spond­ing to ques­tions about what con­sti­tuted that ini­tial stage of ex­per­i­ence. The poll defined the older co­hort as the re­main­ing roughly one-quarter of 25- to 29-year-olds, plus all re­spond­ents over 30.

In these stor­ies, we will de­scribe those whom the poll iden­ti­fied as still start­ing out as the young­er group (or co­hort) and those who have passed that stage as the older group.

Both the young­er and older groups largely agreed in the poll on the defin­i­tion of start­ing out — and on the thresholds that mark the end of that stage in life. The two groups also largely con­verged on the greatest chal­lenges young people face today in get­ting star­ted, though with slightly dif­fer­ing em­phas­is.

Among the young­er group, 37 per­cent said the biggest obstacle fa­cing those start­ing out today is money and their per­son­al budget, fol­lowed by 25 per­cent who picked edu­ca­tion, 20 per­cent who iden­ti­fied work and ca­reer, and 11 per­cent who poin­ted to re­la­tion­ships and fam­ily. The older co­hort ranked the chal­lenges fa­cing those start­ing out today in the same or­der, though they di­vided about equally between budget, edu­ca­tion, and ca­reer atop the list.

Older and young­er adults sep­ar­ated some­what more when asked to com­pare the chal­lenges fa­cing those start­ing out today with those that con­fron­ted earli­er gen­er­a­tions. Young people con­sist­ently offered a some­what more op­tim­ist­ic as­sess­ment of their pro­spects than older people did. But in both groups, clear ma­jor­it­ies thought those get­ting star­ted now face a rock­i­er path than their pre­de­cessors.

Asked to as­sess the op­por­tun­ity for those get­ting star­ted today to “man­age per­son­al fin­ances and con­trol debt,” just 16 per­cent of older re­spond­ents said it was easi­er for young people today than for pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, while 76 per­cent said it is harder. Young­er people were con­sid­er­ably more op­tim­ist­ic, but even so, only 31 per­cent said it was easi­er for them to man­age money than for earli­er gen­er­a­tions, while 65 per­cent said it was tough­er.

Like­wise, older re­spond­ents were far more likely to say it is harder (75 per­cent) than easi­er (18 per­cent) for those start­ing out today to “find af­ford­able and de­sir­able hous­ing” when com­pared to earli­er gen­er­a­tions. Young­er people were only slightly more op­tim­ist­ic, with 24 per­cent of those still start­ing out rat­ing their situ­ation as easi­er and 72 per­cent as harder.

As­sess­ing the road to ca­reer suc­cess, just 12 per­cent of older re­spond­ents thought it is easi­er for those start­ing out to “find a good-pay­ing and steady job” than it was for earli­er gen­er­a­tions; fully 81 per­cent thought it is harder. Young people were barely more op­tim­ist­ic, with 18 per­cent of those start­ing out rat­ing their job pro­spects as bet­ter and 78 per­cent as tough­er.

In fol­low-up in­ter­views, both young­er and older re­spond­ents ex­pressed a nu­anced view of the em­ploy­ment en­vir­on­ment con­front­ing those start­ing out today. On the one hand, many agreed that the com­puter and com­mu­nic­a­tions re­volu­tion was cre­at­ing new op­por­tun­it­ies for young­er people. On the oth­er, there was equal con­sensus that get­ting ahead fin­an­cially has grown tough­er — and al­most al­ways re­quires a post­sec­ond­ary de­gree that im­poses its own eco­nom­ic stresses with stu­dent debt.

“The tech in­dustry is a huge game-changer,” said Chris­toph­er Reeves, a 27-year-old who lives in De­troit and works odd jobs. “Tech­no­logy is the only thing where this gen­er­a­tion flour­ishes.” But over­all, Reeves thinks it’s harder for his gen­er­a­tion to ad­vance in today’s eco­nomy. “The In­ter­net has made a lot of things easi­er for us,” he said. “It’s just that now there’s less money to go around and more people in our gen­er­a­tion. We have all these tech­nic­al ad­vances. But we haven’t ad­vanced so­cially, and it really shows.”

Lo­gan Stein­er, a 20-year-old col­lege seni­or liv­ing in Mead­ville, Pennsylvania, takes a sim­il­ar view. “I just feel like our edu­ca­tion­al sys­tems have im­proved,” said Stein­er, who is study­ing phys­ics. “I’m not say­ing they’re per­fect, but they’ve been im­prov­ing and they’ll keep im­prov­ing.” On the oth­er hand, he adds, “it is harder be­cause you’re ex­pec­ted to know more and be up to date with tech­no­logy. It’s more com­pet­it­ive.”

At 39, Pavel Kostadinov, a hotel bell­man in Naples, Flor­ida with two chil­dren, is fur­ther along in his life than Reeves or Stein­er. But he too wor­ries about the op­por­tun­it­ies avail­able to young­er gen­er­a­tions. “People around me gen­er­ally have few­er op­por­tun­it­ies than I think they had 30 or 40 years ago,” he said. “I see people who want to move ahead and move high­er, but there’s nowhere to go.”

Gen­er­a­tion­al dif­fer­ences ree­m­erged on a fi­nal meas­ure: By more than sev­en-to-one, older re­spond­ents thought it was tough­er rather than easi­er for those start­ing out today to “start and sup­port a fam­ily.” Young people, again, wer­en’t quite as pess­im­ist­ic — but still they agreed by a mar­gin of nearly three-to-one that start­ing a fam­ily is tough­er today.

When asked to con­sider all of these factors, an over­whelm­ing 80 per­cent of older re­spond­ents thought that it was harder “for young people today to get star­ted in life,” while only 13 per­cent thought it was easi­er. Among the young­er group, 27 per­cent thought it was easi­er to get star­ted today, double the share among older re­spond­ents. Even so, a re­sound­ing 68 per­cent of young­er re­spond­ents still thought it was tough­er.

Look­ing spe­cific­ally at young­er people still start­ing out, the sur­vey found re­l­at­ively few demo­graph­ic dif­fer­ences along lines of race or gender in their as­sess­ments of these chal­lenges. (One ex­cep­tion: Whites were con­sid­er­ably more likely than non­whites to say that it was tough­er over­all for young people to get star­ted today.) But one ex­per­i­ence clearly split the young­er co­hort: The sub­stan­tial 45 per­cent of young­er people with stu­dent loans were con­sist­ently more down­beat than the 55 per­cent without them.

Those in the young­er group who are hold­ing stu­dent debt were con­sid­er­ably more likely than those without such debts to say that it was tough­er over­all for young people to get star­ted today. While 32 per­cent of young­er people without such debts said it was easi­er for those start­ing out today, only 22 per­cent of those with stu­dent loans agreed; fully 75 per­cent of the young­er group with loans said it was tough­er to get star­ted, com­pared to 63 per­cent of those without them.

Those in the young­er group with loans were also more likely than those without them to say it was tough­er today to man­age per­son­al fin­ances and con­trol debt, and to de­scribe it as tough­er to start a fam­ily. The weight of stu­dent-loan debt may be one reas­on for the sur­pris­ing find­ing that those in the young­er group with col­lege de­grees were ac­tu­ally slightly more likely than those without them to say that it was tough­er over­all to get star­ted today.

Debts loomed as a prime con­cern for many of the young people con­tac­ted in fol­low-up in­ter­views. “I’m try­ing to be re­spons­ible and pay for my school­ing [debts] while I’m work­ing,” said Kay­la Mat­ulka, a 22-year old who works for the city at­tor­ney’s of­fice in Lin­coln, Neb­raska. “Budget­ing is a big thing for me.” Stein­er, sim­il­arly, has his debts firmly in mind as he con­tem­plates his ca­reer after school. “When I get a job, I hope to be able to pay off those stu­dent loans as soon as pos­sible.”

Des­pite these per­vas­ive chal­lenges, the poll also found con­tinu­ing evid­ence of the per­son­al op­tim­ism and re­si­li­ence that pre­vi­ous Heart­land polls and oth­er sur­veys have iden­ti­fied as a de­fin­ing mil­len­ni­al-gen­er­a­tion char­ac­ter­ist­ic. In the new sur­vey, the young­er group was more likely than the older co­hort to say they be­lieve they have more op­por­tun­ity to ad­vance than their par­ents did — though that con­trast may re­flect so­cial changes as much as eco­nom­ic trends.

Over­all, 50 per­cent of the young­er group said they have “more op­por­tun­ity to get ahead” than their par­ents did at the same age, while only 28 per­cent said they had less, and 22 per­cent viewed their op­por­tun­it­ies as equi­val­ent. Among the older group, only 40 per­cent thought they had more op­por­tun­ity, while 29 per­cent thought they had less op­por­tun­ity and 27 per­cent the same.

But in that young­er group, wo­men (58 per­cent) were much more likely than men (42 per­cent), and minor­it­ies (62 per­cent) far more likely than whites (41 per­cent), to say they had more op­por­tun­ity than their par­ents. (Among young­er white men, just 31 per­cent thought they had more op­por­tun­ity than their par­ents, while 39 per­cent thought they had less .) That sug­gests the young­er group’s re­l­at­ively great­er op­tim­ism may be rooted more in as­sess­ments of fall­ing work­place ra­cial and gender bar­ri­ers than broad­er views about the eco­nomy’s tra­ject­ory.

The power of those so­cial shifts was evid­ent to many older re­spond­ents too. Sherri Hin­nant, a 56-year-old teach­er in Mari­on, Vir­gin­ia, says that young wo­men today have many more op­tions than she did at their age. “I was the first per­son in my fam­ily to even gradu­ate from high school, much less go to col­lege and get a post­gradu­ate de­gree,” she said. “It was ex­pec­ted for wo­men to get mar­ried right out of school. Nowadays, that pres­sure isn’t put on kids. They can do what they want to do; they’re not ex­pec­ted to fit in­to a cook­ie-cut­ter mold.”

In an­oth­er meas­ure of op­tim­ism, those in the young­er group were slightly more likely than older re­spond­ents to be­lieve that their own ef­forts would mat­ter more than broad trends bey­ond their con­trol in de­term­in­ing wheth­er they get ahead. While one-fourth of older re­spond­ents said the state of the eco­nomy (15 per­cent) or gov­ern­ment policy (10 per­cent) would most de­term­ine their op­por­tun­it­ies, just 14 per­cent of the young­er group picked either of those op­tions. Al­most ex­actly two-thirds of the young­er group picked either their edu­ca­tion­al back­ground (36 per­cent) or “own skills and hard work” (30 per­cent). Among the older group, a slightly smal­ler three-fifths picked those per­son­al char­ac­ter­ist­ics.

In what could be a sig­nal of grow­ing con­cern about the op­por­tun­ity for up­ward mo­bil­ity, though, no­tice­able seg­ments of the young­er group also cited two oth­er factors in de­term­in­ing in­di­vidu­als’ suc­cess: their in­come level (10 per­cent) and ra­cial back­ground (8 per­cent). Com­bined, only 8 per­cent of the older group picked those two op­tions. Strik­ingly, though, minor­it­ies in the young­er group were no more likely than whites to pick race as the key factor in suc­cess and even less likely than whites to identi­fy in­come. In­stead, young­er minor­it­ies were more likely than their white peers to point to edu­ca­tion as the key to their per­son­al suc­cess.  

The latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll is the 23rd in a series ex­amin­ing how Amer­ic­ans are ex­per­i­en­cing the chan­ging eco­nomy. This poll ex­plored what Amer­ic­ans con­sider the best choices in ca­reer, fam­ily, and com­munity to achieve suc­cess in life, and how the per­spect­ive on those choices of those just start­ing out com­pares with older gen­er­a­tions. The poll sur­veyed 900 adults by land­line and cell phones from May 17 through 27, 2015, as well as an over­sample of 200 young adults aged 18-24, also by land­line and cell phone. These in­ter­views were then weighted by age, gender, and race/eth­ni­city to pro­duce a na­tion­ally rep­res­ent­at­ive sample of 1,000. A na­tion­al sur­vey of 1,000 re­spond­ents has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.1 per­cent­age points.

The sur­vey was su­per­vised by Ed Re­illy and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Con­sult­ing’s Stra­tegic Com­mu­nic­a­tions prac­tice. On many top­ics throughout the sur­vey, young­er re­spond­ents were asked ques­tions in the con­text of their cur­rent ex­pect­a­tions and ex­per­i­ences, while older re­spond­ents were asked ques­tions ret­ro­spect­ively re­fer­ring to the time in which they were get­ting star­ted.

Contributions by Libby Isenstein and Janie Boschma

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