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In U.S., Optimism About Future for Youth Reaches All-Time Low

by Elizabeth Mendes

The highest-income Americans are among the least optimistic about the future

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Forty-four percent of Americans believe it is likely that today's youth will have a better life than their parents, even fewer than said so amid the 2008-2009 recession, and the lowest on record for a trend dating to 1983.

1983-2011 Trend: In America, each generation has tried to have a better life than their parents, with a better living standard, a better education, and so on. How likely do you think it is that today's youth will have a better life than their parents -- very likely, somewhat likely, somewhat unlikely, or very unlikely?

The large majority of Americans expressed optimism about the future for U.S. youth when Gallup first asked this question in January 2008, as the recession began to take hold. They continued to do so even as the economic crisis unfolded and unemployment ballooned. Hopes for U.S. youth declined to the 50% level in October 2010, however, before dropping to a new low in the April 20-23, 2011, USA Today/Gallup poll.

Gallup uses the same question other survey organizations have asked intermittently over a longer period of time. Selected trends from CBS News, New York Times, and Roper Organization polls reveal that Americans currently express greater pessimism about what the future holds for today's youth than any of these organizations found in surveys from 1983 to 2003. The most positive result occurred in a December 2001 CBS News/New York Times poll in which 71% said American youth would have a better life than their parents.

Hope for the Future of U.S. Youth Lower Among Oldest Age Groups

While the majority of young adults believe that today's youth will be better off than their parents, optimism declines substantially among older Americans. Less than half of 30- to 49-year-olds say the same, and even fewer 50- to 64-year-olds (36%) and seniors (37%) do.

April 2011: Percentage Who Say It Is Very or Somewhat Likely That Today's Youth Will Have a Better Life Than Their Parents, by Age

Younger Americans are typically more optimistic than older Americans across numerous outlook metrics, including standard of living and economic confidence.

High-Income Americans Least Optimistic About the Future

Thirty-seven percent of the highest-income Americans say today's youth will have a better life than their parents, making them least likely of the income groups to share this view. The majority of the lowest-income Americans agree.

April 2011: Percentage Who Say It Is Very or Somewhat Likely That Today's Youth Will Have a Better Life Than Their Parents, by Income

In contrast, the January 2008 results found high-income Americans more hopeful than low-income Americans.

Democrats Hopeful for Future, Republicans Not

A large majority of Democrats (60%) hold out hope that today's youth are headed for a better life than their parents. This optimism most likely reflects their party's control of the presidency, and thus their more positive views of the country's direction. Fewer than one in three Republicans feel the same. Independents are slightly more optimistic than Republicans, but less than half agree.

pcbjgypbw0alf_kwayk6jw.gifApril 2011: Percentage Who Say It Is Very or Somewhat Likely That Today's Youth Will Have a Better Life Than Their Parents, by Party ID

During George W. Bush's presidency in 2008, Republicans were more optimistic than Democrats, underscoring the measure's connection to politics.

Bottom Line

Confidence in the traditional American dream -- that each generation can work its way up in the world and have a better life than the previous generation -- appears to be slipping away. Americans are less likely to believe this to be true today than at any time on record, including during the worst of the recent economic crisis.

Fewer than 4 in 10 high-income Americans -- who presumably have the greatest access to opportunity and resources to gauge what the markets will do going forward -- believe today's youth will be better off than their parents. This level of pessimism may also reflect the massive destruction of wealth that high-income Americans experienced from the economic meltdown.

Young adults, however, are mostly hopeful that today's youth will have a better living standard, better homes, and a better education than their parents. This optimism among youth -- their belief that tomorrow can be better than today -- is an important and hopeful sign, but it is possible that as they age, these young Americans will become more pessimistic, as their elders are today.

Survey Methods

Results for this USA Today/Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted April 20-23, 2011, with a random sample of 1,013 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2010 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

View methodology, full question results, and trend data.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit


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