It's about as hard for a 20-something worker to find a job today as it was in 1986. The economy is growing at a slightly slower pace, but not by much. And yet young workers today are significantly more pessimistic about the possibility of success in America than their counterparts were in 1986, according to a new Fusion 2016 Issues poll reported in conjunction with the Washington Post — a shift that appears to reflect lingering damage from the Great Recession and more than a decade of wage stagnation for typical workers.
That rise in pessimism among millennials is concentrated among white people. It is most pronounced among whites who did not earn a college degree.
The Fusion poll replicated the questions from a Roper/Wall Street Journal poll of young Americans that was conducted in 1986, the year Mister Mister topped the pop charts and Bill Buckner's error cost the Boston Red Sox a World Series title. Both polls posed a series of questions about the American Dream: what it meant to individuals, whether it actually existed and, if it did, how hard it was to attain.
In the three decades between the surveys, pollsters found, share of young Americans overall who said the American Dream "is not really alive" grew sharply from 12 to 29 percent. Among white people, it nearly tripled from 10 percent to 29 percent. One in three white non-college graduates now say it is not alive, compared to one-fifth of white college graduates; the increase from 1986 was larger for non-graduates than for graduates.
The poll found no statistically significant change among young Americans of color over the decades. In 1986, they were about twice as likely as whites to say the American Dream does not exist. Now, the groups are about equally pessimistic.
Young African-Americans are more downbeat on a different question, of whether the American Dream has meaning to them personally. Almost one-third said it does not, roughly double the rate of whites and Hispanics.
But among the respondents who said the American Dream does mean something to them personally, whites were far more likely to say the dream has become harder to achieve compared to a generation ago. Just over 6 in 10 white college graduates said the dream had become harder to achieve, and 7 in 10 non-college graduates said the same, while 53 percent of non-white respondents said so.
The divergence comes even though white and non-white young workers have experienced similar income trends over the last 30 years. The median household income for whites aged 25 to 34 was $58,197 last year, according to the Census Bureau, up only slightly from 1987 after adjusting for inflation. The median income for blacks of the same age was $43,957, also a slight increase from 1987. Hispanics saw a more significant increase, of about 7 percent from 1987 levels, to $42,916 last year.
Young whites' eroding faith in the American Dream isn't the only big shift revealed by the polling. Millennials in general define the dream differently than Generation Xers did in the 80s.
Today's young people are less likely to say owning a home or having "freedom of choice in how to live one's life" and the ability to become wealthy are part of the American Dream. They are more likely to say that starting a business was part of the dream; in an era of high-profile Silicon Valley startups, that item topped millennials' list of possible American Dream components.
This Fusion 2016 Issues Poll was conducted by landline and cell phone interviews Nov. 4-18, 2015, among a random national sample of 935 adults age 18 to 35. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points for the full sample, including the survey’s design effect. The 1986 survey dataset was accessed via the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.