Do Americans Think Their Kids Will Do Better?

By / 8.11.2010

Kevin Drum notes my last post and then wonders, “What I’m more curious about is what this looked like in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Was optimism about our kids’ futures substantially higher then?”

The results I showed were mostly from a fantastic database of polling questions called “Polling the Nations”, which I recommend to everyone (though it’s not free, it’s not that expensive relative to other resources).  That’s why they only start in the mid-80s, and there’s a gap between the mid-00s and the two or three polls I cite from this year and last (my look at this question was a few years ago).

Anyway, Kevin’s query reminded me that there’s another compilation of polling questions that is also amazing—the book, What’s Wrong, by public opinion giants Everett Carll Ladd and Karlyn Bowman.  And it’s a free pdf.

So, let me add some results to those I posted before.  I’m focusing, to the extent possible, on questions that ask parents about their own children.  When people are asked about “kids today” instead of their own kids, they are much more likely to be Debbie Downers—a phenomenon that journalist David Whitman dubbed the “I’m OK, They’re Not” syndrome, which is much more general than questions about children’s future living standards.  Also, let’s be careful to distinguish between levels and trends.

First, let’s look at the confidence parents have that life for their children will be better.

Percentage of parent confidence that life for their children will be better
Year Very confident Fairly confident Not at all confident
1973 26% 36% 30%
1974 25 41 28
1975 23 39 32
1976 31 39 25
1979 25 41 29
1982 20 44 32
1983 24 38 33
1988 20 45 28
1992 17 46 31
1995 17 44 34
2000 46* N/A 48*
Source: Roper Starch Worldwide; *Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard

That last one shouldn’t be directly compared with the others—not only did it only offer a yes-or-no response, it was also asked of all adults.  More on that in a sec.  What we see from the Roper surveys is a fairly steady decline in solid confidence, but not much of a trend in pessimism.

The main dynamic is that parents have moved from being “very” confident to “only fairly” confident.  It looks like there may have been a small decline in optimism from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s.  But it’s interesting that from 1973 to 1995, between 61percent and 70%percent were at least fairly confident that their kids would be better off.

The Washington Post polling result provides a nice opportunity to look at the “I’m OK, They’re Not” pattern, since all adults were asked the question, even though fewer than half had children under 18 in their household.  In a poll my employer* commissioned from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Public Opinion Strategies, we asked parents about their expectations for their children’s living standards.  We asked people who had no children under 18 at home about “kids today.”

Pooling everyone together, 47 percent of adults said kids would have higher living standards. But the parents were much more optimistic about their own children, with 62 percent saying their kids’ living standards would improve.  So the Washington Post result might have been right in the range of the Roper results had the question been asked only of parents.
Other polls have asked whether parents think their children will be better off when they are the same age:

Percentage of parents that think their children will be better off when they are the same age
Year Better off financially Not better off
1981 47 43
1982 43 41
1983 44 45
1985 62 29
1986 74 19
1991 66 25
1994 47* 39*
1995 54 39
1996 52 39
1996 51‡ N/A
1997 51‡ N/A
1999 67‡ N/A
Sources: ABC News/Washington Post;  *Newsweek; Pew Research Center

So optimism declined between the mid-1980s and early-1990s, recovered starting in the mid-1990s, and generally remained above early 1980s levels (when the economy was in recession).  Except for 1983 majorities or pluralities hold the optimistic position.

Another series of polls asked parents whether their children will have a better life than they have had.  They also indicate a decline in optimism from the late 1980s to the early 1990s and a subsequent rebound:

Parents outlook on their children’s life
Year Better life About as good
1989 59% 25%
1992 34 33
1995 46 27
1996 50 26
2002 41* 29*
Sources: BusinessWeek; *Harris Poll

Strong majorities thought the children would have as good a life as them or better, and while more people thought their kids would have a better life than thought they would have a worse life, optimism failed to win a majority of parents in a number of years.  The trends appear to reveal a decline in optimism from the mid- or late-1990s to the early 2000s.  Considering all of these trends thus far, a fairly clear cyclical pattern is emerging, as Kevin observed in his post.

The early 2000s dip also shows up in Harris Poll questions asking whether parents feel good about their children’s future:

Percentage of parents that feel good about their children’s future
Year Feel good
1997 48%
1998 65
1999 60
2000 63
2001 56
2002 59
2003 59
2004 63
Source: Harris Poll

The dip is revealed to be related to the 2001 recession, as optimism rebounded thereafter, again following the business cycle. Again, solid majorities generally take the optimistic position.

The longest time series available asks parents whether their children’s standard of living will be higher than theirs.  Unfortunately, it appears that most of these polls ask the question of adults without children too:

Percentage of parents that believe their children will achieve a higher standard of living
Year Higher standard of living Lower standard of living
1989 52% 12%
1992 47 15
1993 49 17
1994 43 22
1994 45* 20*
1995 46 17
1996 47* N/A
1998 55* N/A
2000 59* N/A
2002 61* N/A
2004 53* N/A
2006 57* N/A
2008 53* N/A
2009 47/62† N/A
2010 45‡ 26‡
Sources: Cambridge Reports/Research International; *General Social Survey; †Economic Mobility Project; ‡Pew Research Center

Once again the cyclical pattern emerges, though it is not quite as clear in the mid-2000s.  Optimism is far more prevalent than pessimism in every year, reaching majorities from the late 1990s until the current recession.  Even today, optimism is no lower than in the mid-1990s, and the EMP poll implies that when looking just at parents with children under 18 living at home, solid majorities continue to believe their kids will have a higher living standard.

Taken together, there is very little evidence that a supposed stagnation in living standards is reflected in Americans’ concerns about how their children will do.  The survey patterns show that parental optimism follows a cyclical pattern, generally is more prevalent than pessimism, and did not decline over time.  In fact, we can compare beliefs in 1946 to 1997 for one question—whether “opportunities to succeed” (1946) or the “chance of succeeding” (1997) will be higher or lower than a same-sex parent’s has been:

·       Roper Starch Worldwide (1946)—64 percent of men said their sons’ opportunities to succeed will be better than theirs (vs. 13 percent worse); 61 percent of women said their daughters’ opportunities to succeed will be better than theirs (vs. 20 percent worse)
·       Princeton Religion Research Center (1997)—62 percent of men said their sons will have a better chance of succeeding than they did (vs. 21 percent worse); 85 percent of women said their daughters will have a better chance (vs. 7 percent worse)

As one would expect, mothers in 1946 believed their daughters would have more opportunity, but surprisingly that view was even more prominent in 1997.  And among men, there was very little change.  Notably, unemployment was slightly lower in 1946 than in 1997, so this isn’t a matter of apples to oranges.

Or even more strikingly, consider two polls asking the following question: Do you think your children’s opportunities to succeed will be better than, or not as good as, those you have? (If no children:) Assume that you did have children.
·       Roper Starch Worldwide (1939)—61 percent better vs. 20 percent not as good vs. 10 percent same (question asked about opportunities of sons compared with fathers)
·       Roper Starch Worldwide (1990)—61 percent better vs. 21 percent not as good vs. 12 percent same

While the 1939 question only refers to males, given the relatively low labor force participation of women at the time, it is perhaps still comparable to the 1990 question.  However, the unemployment rate was 17.2 percent in 1939 compared with 5.6 percent in 1990.  Still, the two are remarkably close.

OK, can we put this question to bed?  Americans believe their children will do as well or better than they have done, and this belief hasn’t weakened over time.  Now let’s get back to arguing about objective living standards rather than subjective fears about them.

* For the love of God, nothing you’ll ever read on my blog has anything to do with my job—there are people at Pew whose ulcers flare at employees’ side hustles like mine.

This item is cross-posted at ScottWinshipWeb.

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