July 3, 1999

Technology Triumphs, Morality Falters

Life At The End Of The Century

Crediting economic prosperity, almost two-thirds of Americans say their own lives are better today than those of their family members in the 1950s. Substantial majorities also say that life in the late 1990s is better than that it was in the 1950s for most major groups, including women, seniors, working class people and many minorities. Half of Americans even say life is better today for white men than it was in the middle part of the century.

The belief that the country is suffering a moral breakdown, however, is more potent than prosperity when Americans are asked to pull back and assess life in the United States overall. No consensus exists on this question: 44% say life in the U.S. is better today than in the 1950s; and a substantial three-in-ten minority say it is worse.

Personal Prosperity

Across almost all demographic groups — men and women, whites and blacks, old and young — strong majorities of Americans say their own lives are better now than those of their families in the 1950s. Overall, 63% say their lives are better today; 21% say about the same; only 12% say worse.

The perception that one’s life is better today is especially strong among the wealthy and the well educated. Nearly seven-in-ten people with incomes of more than $50,000 and a similar number of those with college degrees hold this view.

Low income Americans are the rare group in which a plurality of people say their lives today are no better than those of their families in the 1950s, with one-in-five saying their lives are worse. Twice as many people earning less than $20,000 say their own lives are worse today than do those earning more, 21% and 10%, respectively.

Economic factors drive these perceptions both among people who see their lives as better in the 1990s and among those who see them as worse. Americans who say their own lives are better than those of their families in the 1950s credit economics nearly three times more often than anything else. Overall, 40% of those who see their own lives as better volunteer prosperity, higher pay and financial security as reasons for this improvement. This is true across all major demographic groups.

Again, the affluent and the better educated stand out: 53% of those with college degrees and 59% of those earning more than $75,000 cite economics. While a plurality of young people agree on the role of economics, they are more likely than any other age cohort to mention the benefits of technology. Nearly a quarter (23%) of Americans under age 30 say technology is responsible for improving life today, compared to just 10% of those older.

People who consider their lives today worse than those of their families in the 1950s cite economic factors and moral decay in equal numbers. Three-in-ten name each as the reason their lives are worse. Another 16% say the pace of life today is to blame.

Women, Disabled and Blacks

Looking not at their individual lives but at those of most major groups in America, the public again sees life today as better than 50 years ago. The numbers are overwhelming for certain groups. Eight-in-ten Americans say that women, disabled people and African Americans are better off today than they were in the 1950s.

Six-in-ten people say life today is improved for Hispanics, seniors, gays and lesbians, and the working class. Roughly half of the public says the same for white males, men in general, middle class Americans, and religious people. Relatively few people, 25% or less, say life is worse in the 1990s for any of these groups.

The picture darkens, however, when Americans assess the lives of young people today compared to those of the 1950s. More than half of the public (56%) says the lives of teens are worse today; just 33% say better. When it comes to the lives of younger children, Americans are divided: 44% say that youngsters are worse off today than in the 1950s; 46% say better. Parents of children under age 18 have a particularly dim view, with 64% saying the lives of teens are worse today than in the 1950s, compared to 50% of those without young children.

Farmers are the only other group that a majority of Americans say are doing worse today than in the 1950s: 65% say worse, compared to only 20% who say better.

For the most part, people in key demographic groups share the collective assessment of how their group is doing. Two important exceptions exist, however: African Americans and seniors. Significantly fewer blacks than whites say the lives of African Americans are better today than those of blacks in the 1950s, 68% vs. 83%, respectively. Conversely, seniors are far more likely than younger people to say that the lives of senior citizens are better today than in the 1950s, 81% vs. 57%.

“Life in America” Not Quite So Good

For all the perceived improvement in the quality of Americans’ lives as individuals and as collective groups, most people do not see life in the United States as any better today than it was 50 years ago. Half of the public says life is no better today than it was in the 1950s, compared to 44% who say it is. Even among those who say their own lives are improved, 41% still say life in the U.S. is no better today.

African Americans are one of the very few groups in which a narrow majority sees life in America as improved: 52% of blacks say life is better today than in 1950 (compared to 43% of whites).

Overall, affluence and education are again related to attitudes about improvements in the quality of life in America. Among those with at least some college education, nearly half (47%) say life in the U.S. is better than in the 1950s; only 38% of those lacking a high school diploma agree. Similarly, 47% of those with incomes over $50,000 see life in the U.S. as improved, compared to 34% of those with annual family incomes of less than $20,000.

Moral Decay to Blame

Americans may be divided about whether life in the country has improved or not, but among those who believe it is worse, opinion is overwhelming that moral decay is to blame. Nearly seven-in-ten people who see life in the U.S. as worse today than it was in the 1950s say the cause is a decline in morality — such as increased crime, the breakdown in family structure and a lack of respect for others. This belief is somewhat stronger among the very religious: 75% of them blame moral decay. Notably, Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to name morality as the culprit.

When it comes to the reasons why life is improved in America, the economy is again the top answer. Although references to economic prosperity are the most common responses across most demographic groups, two exceptions are worth noting. Just as many African Americans cite freedom and civil rights (27%) as identify the economy — only 11% of whites cite civil rights — and people between the ages of 18 and 29 say technology (25%) as often as the economy (27%).

The Littleton Effect

The shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado occurred while this survey was being conducted: 62% of the interviews were completed before and 38% after the tragedy.

Overall, few differences are found between the findings before and after the shootings. But the question about life in the U.S. today stands as an important exception — an exception that fits with the broader finding that Americans cite crime, moral decay and anti-social behavior as factors undermining American progress today.

The shootings had a modest impact on attitudes about life in America, although not significant enough to change the overall pattern of results. Before the shootings in Littleton, a clear 48% plurality of Americans said life in the U.S. was better than 50 years ago, nearly twice the number who said worse (25%). Opinion about life in America divides far more narrowly in the wake of the high school shooting: 38% of the public says life today is better and 36% say worse.

A difference is also seen when people compare the lives of teenagers today to those of the 1950s: a significant 61% agreed that life is worse for teens after the tragedy, compared to a narrow 52% majority who said this beforehand. Only a slight difference is found when Americans compare their own lives to those of their family members in the 1950s. Before the shootings, 65% of the public said their lives today were better, compared to 58% who say better following the shootings.