Reporting from Washington — A poll of young adults sponsored by two youth organizations shows that most do not think they will be financially better off than their parents.
But they are not totally pessimistic. Though 57% are very concerned about the middle class disappearing, 77% think they personally can achieve the American dream.
That means economic status may not play as large a role in defining the American dream for the 18-to-34 age group, said Chris Matthews, one of the pollsters and president of Bellwether Research & Consulting. The poll was conducted for two youth groups, Young Invincibles and Demos.
"Maybe the American dream means something else for this generation. Maybe it's not about living in a McMansion — it's about living in an Arts and Crafts bungalow," Matthews said. "I think they acknowledge that, financially, it's very difficult out there and are seeking ways of living a more balanced life instead."
The financial outlook for the age group turned bleak long before the recession hit, according to a report released along with the poll. Since the 1990s, student debt has doubled and, controlling for inflation, the average cost of four years of college now is $30,400 compared with $8,400 in 1980. The percentage of income used for rent and health insurance has also gone up.
Three years after the recession started, the age group's unemployment rate is nearly twice the national average, and more than half make less than $30,000 a year.
All sorts of major life decisions are postponed as well, especially within minority groups. Almost half have delayed purchasing a home, a third have delayed moving out on their own or starting a family, and a quarter have put off marriage.
"The landscape has changed dramatically even from when my parents were young adults," said Aaron Smith, executive director of Young Invincibles. "It's changed how young people are able to get ahead in the world."
Washington-based Young Invincibles is a research and policy organization focused on issues affecting youth, and New York-based Demos is an economic research and policy development organization.
Thirty percent of those polled thought that hard work was a leading factor in finding financial success, and 42% thought education and training was most important.
But Smith said he thought the overall optimism about achieving the American dream also stemmed from a belief that policies economically favorable to youth can still be campaigned for. Healthcare reform that started insuring more than a million more young people this year and the Occupy Wall Street protests now taking place across the country are examples of that, he said.
"It reflects something innate to young people: that we can do better things," Smith said.