Americans are filled with angst about the economy and perceived declines in standards of living. Rising inflation has raised anxiety levels, along with losses in the stock market and other factors. National elections also play a role, with some candidates getting voters riled up about how bad things seem.
But are such concerns justified, or do people have short memories about how conditions now compare to those in the past?
A recent national survey raised the issue, with nearly half of all respondents, 46%, complaining that it’s more difficult now to achieve a good standard of living compared to their parents. In addition, 54% expressed doubt that today’s youth will have improved upward mobility and equal opportunities, according to the survey by the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
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African American adults were an exception, voicing more optimism than the population at large. Also, older adults — those 60 and up — were generally more buoyant than those at younger ages.
But the study also acknowledged that people don’t share the same views about what upward mobility, improved standards of living and other concepts mean.
Some of these aspects are subjective and difficult to measure, such as the ability to pursue what you enjoy, have a successful career or to raise a family. But other indicators do have some hard data behind them, and they suggest Americans are more pessimistic than they should be. Some examples:
College degrees still attainable
Many Americans seem to view college educations as more elusive than in years past, with 37% of respondents in the University of Chicago survey saying college degrees are somewhat or much more difficult to obtain.
That grim outlook is understandable given the often hefty expenses involved. Still, higher education often is worth the investment in time, effort and money, as income levels consistently increase for people with higher educational attainment. Graduates, especially in sought-after fields such as technology, finance and health care, continue to enjoy lucrative job prospects. Overall, a mere 1.8% of college graduates who want to work are unemployed.
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Despite the financial and other hardships of earning a college degree, this educational attainment continues to rise, with 38% of adults having a bachelor’s, master’s or higher degree as of 2021, according to the Census Bureau. That was up from 24% in 2000 and much lower levels in prior decades. The increases were driven by more people of color earning college degrees and, especially, by women.
College educations are still available to those who want them.
Still opportunities to see the world
Another measure tied to standards of living — the ability to travel and see the world — was cited as more difficult by 39% of respondents.
Travel to other countries indeed has dropped off over the past couple of years. The International Trade Administration of the U.S. Commerce Department tracks the number of Americans leaving the country by air, making this a good measure. In 2021, Americans logged 49.1 million departures by air to foreign nations including Mexico and Canada. That was down from 58.5 million 10 years earlier, in 2011.
However, air travel had risen substantially until the COVID-19 outbreak, reaching 99.7 million trips in 2019, before tumbling the next year. In other words, that drop in the number of Americans venturing abroad might have a lot more to do with masks, vaccinations, pandemic restrictions and other health factors than affordability.
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Personal income clearly plays a role, as international travel can be expensive. People with higher incomes and college educations are more likely to travel abroad, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. So too for men, white people and Latino people.
Still, most U.S. adults, 71%, said they have visited at least one foreign nation, the Pew study found, though veteran international travelers are rare, with only 11% of Americans having visited 10 or more foreign nations.
Homeownership dream still alive
Of the various indicators tied to getting ahead in the University of Chicago study, owning a home topped the list. It also was the indicator over which Americans voiced the most pessimism, with 56% of respondents saying homeownership is somewhat or much harder to achieve.
Surging home prices in many markets, with a drop in affordability, explains this somber outlook. Spiking mortgage interest rates haven’t helped. But these could prove temporary factors. Already, price appreciation has started to taper off.
Over the long haul, homeownership has remained remarkably steady, hovering between 61% and 65% since 1960, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Plus, the number of people per household has gradually declined, while dwellings have gotten larger. The median home in 1980 had just under 1,600 square feet of space, but that had risen to nearly 2,400 square feet by 2018, reports The Zebra, an insurance comparison service.
Also, new houses and even many resell homes today offer more features than years before. Not just central air conditioning but items such as upscale kitchen and bathroom finishes, kitchen islands, walk-in pantries, high ceilings, dedicated spaces for personal gyms, home-security systems, built-in speakers and other connections for electronic gadgets that didn’t exist decades ago.
Affording a home can still be a heavy lift financially, but owners today get more bang for the buck, with a lot more personal space and features than decades before. Despite all that, the overall homeownership rate has remained mostly stable.
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