Seeing a Better Tomorrow (Well, Day After Tomorrow)

Subtly or otherwise, many brands are using their ads to commiserate with consumers amid the hardships of a recession. They’ll need to be careful not to overdo it, though. Much as consumers feel current conditions are awful, a new Pew Economic Mobility Project report rebuts the notion that people see their prospects permanently diminished. Yes, Americans are economizing now, but the survey makes it clear that they don’t picture themselves needing to downsize forever.

It’s not as if respondents to the poll (fielded in January and February) were denying the economy is in bad shape. Seventy-three percent rated it “poor,” with another 21 percent saying it’s “only fair.” Just 6 percent rated it “good” — which is six percentage points more than the zero percent who termed it “excellent.” They were just modestly more upbeat in gauging their personal economic situation: 25 percent called it poor, 43 percent only fair, 27 percent good and 5 percent excellent. In short, the pollster wasn’t getting a bunch of Pollyannas on the phone.

Still, relatively few people see these struggles as a permanent state for them personally, let alone for their children’s generation. Using a longer time horizon than most polls, one question asked respondents to predict how their economic circumstances will be 10 years hence. More than three-quarters expect to be better off, including 25 percent who said their economic circumstances will be “much better.” Just 14 percent expect to be worse off in 10 years, including 5 percent saying “much worse.”

Despite much talk of downward mobility, a solid majority said their standard of living is better than that of their parents at the same age: 31 percent said it’s “much better” and 28 percent that it’s “somewhat better.” Few said it’s “somewhat worse” (11 percent) or “much worse” (6 percent, with most of the rest saying it’s “about the same”).

The pattern was similar when people who have kids at home were asked whether their offspring will have a better or worse standard of living when they reach the parents’ current age. One in 10 think their kids will be worse off (6 percent “somewhat,” 4 percent “much”); more than six in 10 think they’ll be better off (32 percent “much,” 30 percent “somewhat”). Sixty-three percent of black parents and 47 percent of Hispanic parents think their kids will be much better off.

Perhaps the most surprising finding is that people don’t feel they must put their ambitions on hold until the recession goes away. After noting that “Currently the country is in a recession,” one question asked whether “it is still possible for people to improve their economic standing.” Fifty-six percent agreed strongly (plus 24 percent not strongly) that it is still possible. Similarly, 74 percent said they feel at least somewhat in control of their “personal economic situation today.”

Attitudes were more mixed when the polling focused on mobility from one economic class to another. On the question of whether someone can “start poor, work hard and become rich,” just 7 percent said this is “very common” and 32 percent that it’s “somewhat common.” A majority said such rags-to-riches journeys are “somewhat uncommon” (32 percent) or “very uncommon” (27 percent).

But this doesn’t mean Americans think individuals are locked into a given economic stratum for life. Sixty-five percent believe strongly that “the individual person and things like hard work and drive” are what matter when it comes to economic mobility; just 16 percent strongly believe one’s fate is determined more by “outside factors and things like the economy and their economic circumstances growing up.”

And what if people move in the opposite direction? When respondents were asked to say why a person would move “down the economic ladder,” the biggest vote went to “poor life choices” (cited by 25 percent), “taking on too much debt” (20 percent) and “lack of education” (20 percent).