June 22, 2010

Public Sees a Future Full of Promise and Peril

Section 2: The Nation, The Economy and Social Trends

Most Americans are optimistic about their own lives and the future of the United States over the next 40 years. But there are clouds on the horizon. Most expect the average family’s standard of living will not improve by 2050 and there is a widespread belief that economic inequality will increase.

More than six-in-ten (64%) say they are either very (26%) or somewhat (38%) optimistic about life for them and their families over the next 40 years. Personal optimism has slipped somewhat from the 1999 survey when fully 81% said they were either very (40%) or somewhat (41%) optimistic about life in the future.

Most Americans (61%) also are optimistic about the future of the U.S. over the next 40 years. However, fewer today are optimistic than in 1999, when 70% expressed optimism.

Democrats (72%) stand out as being more optimistic about the nation’s future than Republicans and independents (55% each). Optimism about the future of the country also is associated with expectations for the U.S. economy. Fully 78% of those who say the U.S. economy will be stronger by 2050 are optimistic about the nation’s future, compared with just 34% among those who say the economy will be weaker 40 years from today.

Mixed Economic Expectations

As might be expected, fewer Americans (56%) expect the U.S. economy will be stronger in 2050 than said that during economic boom of the late 1990s (64%). Somewhat more also say the gap between rich and poor will get smaller than did so 11 years ago (34% today, 27% in 1999). Still, a majority (58%) continues to say that it is likely that the rich-poor gap will grow.

Despite the public’s fairly upbeat assessment of the nation’s economic future, only about a third (34%) says that the average American family will see its standard of living get better over the next 40 years. More than six-in-ten (63%) see the average family’ standard of living getting worse (36%) or staying the same (27%) over the next four decades.

Opinions about the future of the economy and standard of living for average families are divided along partisan lines. Fully 71% of Democrats say the U.S. economy will be stronger 40 years from now than it is today. That compares with 50% of independents and 47% of Republicans.

Democrats also are more likely than independents or Republicans to see the average family’s standard of living improve by 2050. Still, fewer than half of Democrats (44%) expect that the average family will be better off economically. Only about three-in-ten independents (29%) and Republicans (27%) see average families doing better in the future.

There is little optimism across most demographic and income groups that the standard of living for average families will improve. However, 61% of African Americans say that the standard of living for families will improve; just 27% of whites agree.

Among those who see the U.S. economy getting stronger over the next 40 years, 53% see average families doing better economically. Among those who say the economy will be weaker in the future, 67% say the standard of living will get worse by 2050.

Health Care and Education

Public expectations are divided about progress on two major domestic issues – health care and education. Compared with 1999, many more people expect health care to be more affordable 40 years from now than it is today. By contrast, far fewer people say the public education system will improve than did so 11 years ago.

The changing expectations on both issues are strongly linked to partisanship. In the wake of passage of major health care legislation, twice as many Democrats say health care will be more affordable in the future than did so in 1999 (70% today, 35% then). Independents also are more likely to say that health care will be more affordable (47% today, 35% in 1999). But fewer Republicans say health care is likely to become more affordable than did so in 1999 (30% today, 41% in 1999).

Republicans take a much more negative view of the future of the public education system than they did 11 years ago. Currently, a majority of Republicans (55%) say the public education system is more likely to get worse over the next 40 years. In 1999, most Republicans (63%) thought that public education would improve by 2050.

Independents also have turned more negative about the future of public education. Fewer than half (44%) see public education improving by 2050, down from 63% in 1999. Democrats remain much more positive about the education system: Currently, 66% say it is more likely to improve by 2050, little changed from 11 years ago (72%).

Most Expect Female, Hispanic Presidents

There is much greater agreement among the public that political gender and ethnic barriers will fall in the next 40 years. Fully 89% say that a woman will definitely (28%) or probably (61%) be elected, up from 80% in 1999. Men (90%) are as likely as women (88%) to say they think a woman will become president; large majorities of all political and demographic groups expect this to happen.

Somewhat fewer (69%) – but still a clear majority – expect a Hispanic to be elected U.S. president in the next 40 years. Just 26% say this will definitely or probably not happen.

The public also anticipates that race relations in the United States will improve, rather than get worse, over the next 40 years. Nearly seven-in-ten (68%) now say that race relations are likely to improve, which is unchanged from 1999. Those under the age of 50 are somewhat more optimistic about the future of race relations in this country than are older Americans: 75% of those under 50 think race relations will improve, compared with 61% of those 50 and older.

Aging Workforce Envisioned

An overwhelming majority (86%) says that it is at least probable that in the next 40 years most Americans will have to work into their 70s before retiring. Just 11% say this is definitely or probably not going to happen.

There are only modest demographic differences on this issue. But young people today – who would actually experience extended time in the workforce – are less likely than older people to see this as probable. While 78% of those under 30 say most Americans will have to work into their 70s before retiring, fully 89% of those 30 and older expect this to happen.

A sizable minority (42%) say it is likely that the nation’s population of those 100 and older – already the largest in its history – will grow substantially by 2050. Half (50%) say that about as many people will live to 100 as do so today. College graduates (55%) are much more likely than those with no college experience (34%) to predict many more people living to age 100 in the future.

Demographic Trends

Most experts agree that the U.S. population will continue to grow in the decades to come. Asked about estimates that the nation’s population will grow by 100 million by 2050, far Americans more say the burgeoning population will harm the country (42%) than benefit the country (16%); 37% say it will neither benefit nor harm the country.

On a related subject, the public is divided over whether legal immigration will need to be increased, kept at current levels, or reduced in order to maintain the strength of the U.S. economy over the next 40 years. Slightly more than a third (36%) say legal immigration will need to maintained at current levels, 34% say it will need to be decreased, while 26% say it will need to be increased.

Notably, far more of those who do not have a college degree (39%) than college graduates (21%) say legal immigration will need to be decreased keep the U.S. economy strong. There also are partisan differences; 43% of Republicans say immigration will need to be decreased compared with 31% of independents and 28% of Democrats.