SURVEY: Younger Americans least optimistic about freedom and opportunity

A new survey shows that while Americans remain broadly confident about their economic opportunities, younger voters are considerably more skeptical about the country’s prospects.

Overall, the first annual American Opportunity Index—released Thursday by Eureka College to coincide with the birthday of its most famous alumnus, President Ronald Reagan—finds that current perceptions of economic opportunity in America are at 66 percent of their full potential based on seven metrics that frame present assessments in the context of past experience and expectations for the future.

“The whole purpose of this is to generate discussion,” Eureka President J. David Arnold told Campus Reform. “That’s really our hope for the use of the survey—that it will generate discussion among the experts, and will elevate the whole discussion of American opportunity.”

Respondents had the strongest confidence, by far, in two indicators of contemporary prospects, with 91 percent agreeing that “America gives me the freedom and opportunity to use my talents and skills to pursue my dreams,” and 90 percent expressing the belief that “Americans have greater freedoms and opportunities to pursue their dreams compared to people living in other countries.”

The results were less positive on the question of equality, with only 65 percent believing that “every American today has the same freedom and opportunity to use their talents and skills to pursue their dreams.”

Notably, though, the greatest disparities were not between races—67 percent of whites agreed with the statement, but so did 62 percent of blacks and 61 percent of Hispanics—but between generations. Whereas 78 percent of those over age 65 felt equality of opportunity exists today, including 34 percent who said they strongly agree, only 54 percent of those in the 18-29 age range felt the same way, and just 18 percent did so strongly.

“The younger generations have more personal ambiguity,” Arnold offered as an interpretation of the findings. “They really don’t know how their future is going to develop yet, and their personal history is somewhat limited … so I don’t interpret it as pessimism; they just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Arnold also speculated that the relative pessimism of younger Americans might be explained, at least in part, by the fact that massive increases in enrollment have diluted the value of a college degree.

“When Ronald Reagan was a student here, the estimate I’ve heard is that less than seven percent of Americans attended college, so the college degree was a ticket in a way that it no longer is,” he explained. “With wider access to higher education, the degree alone isn’t a ticket to success; you have to put together internships and experience.”

Yet despite their general optimism about the current state of affairs, respondents were considerably more circumspect when asked to evaluate things in a historical context.

A mere 54 percent, for instance, reported having “the same freedoms and opportunities to pursue my dreams today that my parents and grandparents had.” Once again, the generational differences were striking, with 42 percent of the youngest respondents expressing that belief, compared to 62 percent of the oldest ones.

The poll generated similar responses to the question of whether “future generations will have the same freedoms and opportunities to pursue their dreams that I have today,” with which only 50 percent agreed. Although attitudinal differences were still apparent between generations on this metric, political affiliation seemed to play a much more significant role in influencing responses, with 63 percent of Democrats expressing optimism about the future against just 45 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of Independents.

Even if they are uncertain that future generations will have the same degree of opportunity, though, most Americans do not foresee an apocalyptic future, with nearly three-fourths predicting that “the promise of freedom and opportunity to pursue your dreams will exist in America’s future.”

That underlying confidence in America’s ability to remain a land of opportunity should be “the biggest takeaway” from the survey, Arnold told Campus Reform, adding that the population’s tenacious optimism could even come into play in the presidential election.

“Despite all the adversity and economic turbulence we’ve had, the fact that 91 percent see for themselves the opportunity and freedom to pursue their dreams is an absolutely positive indication of their optimism about their future,” he explained. “Reagan was able to tap into that optimism in the American people … [but] there’s not a lot of talk about American opportunity in what we’ve heard from candidates thus far, and I think our survey shows that many Americans feel that lack.”

Arnold also considers it particularly appropriate that Eureka would produce this report, given its history of providing future leaders with the opportunity to reach their potential, and said he looks forward to expanding the concept with subsequent editions.

“We’ve always been a place that’s served as a launching pad: we’ve graduated seven governors and members of Congress, 42 college presidents, and of course Reagan (though I admit we double-counted Reagan in the governor and president category),” he pointed out. “Even today, 60 percent of our students are the first in their families to go to college, so a topic that we’ll certainly explore in future surveys is the role of education in creating opportunity, and I think we’ll have some interesting findings about that.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @FrickePete