More than half of Americans believe it’s unlikely younger people today will have better lives than their parents, according to a new poll from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Most of those polled said that raising a family and owning a home are important to them, but more than half said these goals are harder to achieve compared with their parents’ generation. That was particularly true for younger people — about seven in 10 Americans under 30 think homeownership has become harder to achieve.
About half of those polled also said it’s hard for them to improve their own standards of living, with many citing both economic conditions and structural factors.
Josean Cano, 39, a bus operator in Chicago who is Hispanic, said he's had a harder time economically than his parents. He mentioned inflation, high housing costs, and the recent baby formula shortage as examples.
“Things have doubled and tripled in price, ” he said. “We’re not talking about gym shoes or concert tickets. We’re talking about essentials. Six months ago, you couldn’t find PediaSure. And if you could find it, it would be $20. It used to be $11 at Target.”
Cano also pointed to the fact that the real purchasing power of the minimum wage was higher for previous generations and that rents and the cost of education were more reasonable.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, the federal minimum wage in 2021 was worth 34% less than in 1968, when its purchasing power peaked.
“Many people perceive their options are less than what they had in the past,” said University of Chicago professor Steven Durlauf, who studies inequality and helped construct the study. “A lot of sense of well-being has to do with relative status, not absolute status.”
The study also showed marked partisan disagreements over whether structural factors contribute to social mobility.
Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say that factors such as parents’ wealth, the community one lives in, college education, race and ethnicity, and gender greatly affect one’s social mobility. Black and Hispanic adults were also more likely than white adults to say a college education, race and ethnicity, and gender are very important factors.
Acacia Barraza, 35, who lives in Las Lunas, New Mexico and works as an employee services coordinator, said she was more optimistic about social mobility for Hispanic Americans before the election of former President Donald Trump. Barraza is Hispanic and Native American.
“Before, I would have thought we had made progress,” she said. “That we’d be able to have more and be more. But we’re battling the same battles our parents did. Trump brought it back to the forefront.”
Barraza said that student debt, which she and her husband both have, has made raising a family and working towards buying a house more difficult.
According to Department of Education data, average student loan debt has increased for all generations, reaching record highs. Of adults under 30 who have a bachelor's degree or higher, 49% have student loan debt. Federal borrowers 24 and younger owe an average of $14,434, those aged 25 to 34 owe an average debt of $33,570, and those aged 35 to 49 owe an average federal debt of $43,208.
Mark Claffey, 52, who is disabled, white, and lives in Logan, Ohio, said that “everything costs more” now than it did for his parents’ generation.
“Back then you could make something on a limited budget,” he said. “You could do more with less. Bread cost less than a dollar.”
Now, Claffey says he and his wife find themselves squeezed at the end of the month on their fixed income budgets. He also thinks the country is more divided and polarized along partisan lines than in previous eras.
Compared with younger people, Americans aged 60 or older are more likely to believe it’s easier for them to achieve a good standard of living compared with their parents, the poll found.
Only 35% of adults over 60 said it is “much or somewhat harder” to achieve a good standard of living, compared with 54% of adults aged 18-29.
The poll also found that Black Americans have a more positive outlook on upward mobility for future generations than white Americans.
Poll respondent Glen McDaniel, 70, who is Black and works as a medical laboratory scientist in Atlanta, said he has “a certain amount of optimism" about the prospect of future generations having a better standard of living because he “knows for a fact it's possible, not something you read in a book."
“I've seen a lot of history through these eyes,” he said. “There were times when even someone looking like me going to college didn't seem possible. We would have to think, going on vacation — would people who look like us be safe, or would we be harassed? It's incredible to think that was during my lifetime.”
McDaniel said his mother started college, but dropped out, and that he went to the University of Toronto. He said seeing technological advances also contributes to his feeling that future generations may make gains.
McDaniel added that his optimism is “a little constrained by the political climate right now."
“There's still a climate of people coming out from under rocks motivated by their worst fears,” he said. “It's not as blatant as when I was a kid. But it's still part of the American ethos.”
The poll of 1,014 adults was conducted Aug. 25-29 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.
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