October 24, 1999

Optimism Reigns, Technology Plays Key Role

Introduction and Summary

Americans anticipate many perils in the next century, but none of them, no matter how grave, can dim the public’s positive view of the future. Despite consensus forecasts of natural disasters, environmental calamities and international terrorism, Americans are near unanimous in their confidence that life will get better for themselves, their families and the country as a whole.

An overwhelming 81% of adults are steadfast in their optimism about what the 21st century holds for them and their families, and 70% believe the country as a whole will do well. Eight-in-ten Americans describe themselves as hopeful about the year 2000, and they anticipate the new millennium will usher in the triumph of science and technology. Majorities predict cancer most likely will be cured, AIDS will be eradicated and ordinary people will travel in space.

At the same time, nearly two-thirds of the public anticipates a serious terrorist attack on the United States within the next 50 years, and more than half say an epidemic worse than AIDS is at least likely. Vast numbers of Americans also view as probable a major earthquake in California, global warming and a severe energy crisis by the middle of the 21st century.

Very sizable minorities expect even more dire things to come, although less than 20% of the public describes themselves as worried about the coming of the year 2000. More than one-third of Americans say the U.S. will most likely be involved in a nuclear war within the next 50 years, and nearly as many believe an asteroid will hit the Earth within that time.

Analysis of the survey finds, however, that these specific ideas of what the future might hold — many of them grim — have relatively little impact upon the general feeling of optimism about it. Even among those who are certain nuclear war is imminent or fully expect the Earth to be struck by an asteroid, majorities remain optimistic about the future. Conversely, general optimism is not necessarily tied to anticipation of specific improvements and progress. Those expecting a cure for cancer or Jesus Christ’s return to Earth are no more hopeful about their lives for the next 50 years than are those who do not anticipate these things.

These are the principal findings of the Pew Research Center survey of 1,546 adults on the millennium. The survey was conducted April 6 – May 6, 1999 and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points. This report details America’s hopes and fears for the future. A previous report, released July 4, 1999, looked back at the past one hundred years. It is available on our website www.people-press.org/mill1rpt.htm.

One theme that connects many of the public’s fears for the future is globalism: Problems that cannot be controlled by science or by our borders appear most threatening. Environmental problems and international terrorists stand atop the list of threats to the future, with nearly two-thirds of the public citing each as a major threat. The majority also believes the growing world population is likely to cause shortages of food and resources.

This pattern of global fears extends to American views of the U.S. economy and the country’s role in the world. Although two-thirds (64%) of the public believes the U.S. economy will grow stronger in the next 50 years, half (52%) expect that the average American will be hurt by the global economy. Half of the country does not expect the U.S. to remain the world’s lone superpower (53%); two-thirds believe that China will emerge as our global rival (67%); 41% foresee a nuclear war; 37% think the U.S. will be involved in such a war.

But for all the global worries Americans see looming, public faith is just as strong that science and technology will expand their horizons. Americans overwhelmingly say science and technology, medical advances and education will play major roles is creating a better future. Three-quarters think a manned spacecraft will explore Mars, and nearly six-in-ten go even farther, predicting ordinary people will travel in space before the middle of the 21st century. A 58% majority believe Americans will live much longer in the next century, and 78% of the public anticipates environmental progress.

Social and economic progress are also anticipated, but with smaller margins and more caveats than for scientific achievements. For example, despite faith that the domestic economy will be stronger, 69% say that the gap between rich and poor will widen. Similarly, the share predicting an increase in crime has fallen 9 percentage points over the past three years, but still 59% say the crime rate will climb in the next 50 years. Two-thirds of Americans expect the education system to improve by mid-century; but 60% see less affordable health care and 52% anticipate less honesty from political leaders.

The public is more consistently optimistic about racial matters. Two-thirds (68%) think that race relations will improve, and 76% believe an African American will be elected president by the middle of the 21st century, which is almost as many as think that a woman will be elected. African Americans are notably less optimistic than are whites about the future of race relations and about the prospects of one of their own occupying the Oval Office.

Few Americans, however, say they wish to live another 100 years to see how it will all turn out. This view is shared by optimists and pessimists. Age and religion matter more than outlook. Younger people and those with no formal religious affiliation express more interest in staying alive to greet the 22nd century than do older and more religious people.