Americans are filled with angst about the economy and the perceived decline in living standards. Rising inflation has increased anxiety levels, as well as losses in the stock market and other factors. National elections are also playing a role, with some candidates riling voters about the seriousness of the situation.
But are these concerns justified, or do people have a short memory of how current conditions compare to those of the past?
A recent national survey raised the issue, with nearly half of all respondents, 46%, complaining that it is harder now to achieve a good standard of living compared to their parents. Additionally, 54% expressed doubts about improving upward mobility and equal opportunity for young people today, according to the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy survey. and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
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African American adults were an exception, expressing more optimism than the general population. Additionally, older adults—those 60 and older—were generally more dynamic than younger ones.
But the study also recognized that people don’t share the same views on what upward mobility, improved living standards and other concepts mean.
Some of these aspects are subjective and difficult to measure, such as the ability to pursue what you love, to have a successful career, or to raise a family. But other indicators are based on hard data and suggest that Americans are more pessimistic than they should be. Some examples:
University degrees still available
Many Americans seem to view a college education as more elusive than in the past, with 37% of respondents to the University of Chicago survey saying college degrees are somewhat or much harder to get.
This bleak outlook is understandable given the often hefty expense involved. Yet higher education is often worth the investment of time, effort, and money, as income levels are constantly increasing for people with higher levels of education. Graduates, especially in sought-after fields such as technology, finance, and healthcare, continue to enjoy lucrative job prospects. Overall, just 1.8% of college graduates who want to work are unemployed.
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Despite the financial and other challenges of earning a college degree, that level of education continues to rise, with 38% of adults having a bachelor’s, master’s or higher degree in 2021, according to the Census Bureau. This figure was up from 24% in 2000 and from levels well below in previous decades. The increases were driven by more people of color earning college degrees and, in particular, by women.
College education is still available for those who want it.
More opportunities to see the world
Another measure related to standard of living — the ability to travel and see the world — was cited as more difficult by 39% of respondents.
Travel to other countries has indeed declined over the past two years. The US Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration tracks the number of Americans leaving the country by air, so that’s a good metric. In 2021, Americans recorded 49.1 million air departures to foreign countries, including Mexico and Canada. This figure was down from 58.5 million 10 years earlier, in 2011.
However, air travel had increased significantly until the COVID-19 outbreak, reaching 99.7 million trips in 2019, before falling the following year. In other words, this drop in the number of Americans venturing abroad might have a lot more to do with masks, vaccinations, pandemic restrictions and other health factors than affordability.
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Personal income clearly plays a role, as international travel can be expensive. According to a Pew Research Center study, people with higher incomes and college education are more likely to travel abroad. The same goes for men, whites and Latinos.
Still, most American adults, 71%, said they had visited at least one foreign country, according to the Pew study, although veteran international travelers are rare, with only 11% of Americans having visited 10 or more foreign countries.
The dream of home ownership is still alive
Among the various indicators related to advancement in the University of Chicago study, owning a home tops the list. It is also the indicator on which Americans expressed the most pessimism, with 56% of respondents saying that home ownership is somewhat or much harder to achieve.
Soaring house prices in many markets, accompanied by declining affordability, explain the bleak outlook. Soaring mortgage interest rates haven’t helped. But these could turn out to be temporary factors. Already, price appreciation has started to decline.
Over the long term, homeownership has remained remarkably stable, hovering between 61% and 65% since 1960, according to the Federal Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. In addition, the number of people per household has gradually decreased, while housing has expanded. The median home in 1980 had just under 1,600 square feet of space, but had grown to nearly 2,400 square feet by 2018, reports The Zebra, an insurance comparison service.
Additionally, new homes and even many resale homes today offer more features than in previous years. Not just central air conditioning, but things like high-end kitchen and bathroom finishes, kitchen islands, pantries, high ceilings, dedicated personal gym spaces, security systems home, built-in speakers and other connections for electronic gadgets didn’t exist decades ago.
Buying a home can still be a heavy financial burden, but homeowners today get more for their money, with far more personal space and features than decades ago. Despite all of this, the overall homeownership rate has remained fairly stable.
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