Da funk

THE BIG IDEA: Americans, collectively, appear to be in a deep funk about the future.

by James Hohmann – Daily 202 Washington Post – Mar 22, 2019

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When adults are asked to think about what the United States will be like in 2050, they see the country declining in stature on the world stage, a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots and growing political polarization. They think health care will be less affordable, public education will be lower quality and retiring will be harder. They fear the growing national debt, the likelihood of an attack that’s as bad or worse than 9/11 and another 1970s-style energy crisis. Many people also think robots will take their jobs. Few folks in either party believe the political class is up to the task of addressing the most pressing challenges. Part of the problem is that there is less agreement about what the biggest problems even are than there once was, let alone the best ways to tackle them.

A Pew Research Center study published Thursday is full of sobering data points that underscore the level of unease in the body politic and help explain why every two years brings another change election. The comprehensive poll, released with a 58-page report, paints a grim portrait of Americans who feel trepidation about the day-to-day lives that they and their children will be forced to live in 30 years. The numbers bear out what I’ve heard for years now from voters across the country and across the ideological spectrum.

Seven in 10 Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country right now, higher than at any time in the past year, but there is a more atmospheric crisis of confidence that transcends the daily news cycle or even the Trump presidency. Overall, 56 percent of people say they are somewhat or even “very” optimistic about the future while 44 percent say they are pessimistic. But asking specific questions reveals a deeper, more systemic anxiety.

The economy: We’re a decade removed from the Great Recession, yet 62 percent of Americans expect the lower class will increase as a relative share of the U.S. population by 2050. Only 20 percent expect that average families will fare better financially in the future than they do today. Another 44 percent predict that their standard of living to be worse three decades from now. The poll shows that 73 percent expect the gap between the rich and the poor to grow, including majorities across demographic and political groups. Overall, 54 percent predict that the U.S. economy as a whole will be weaker in 2050 than it is today. And 63 percent worry the national debt will be larger in 2050 than it is now. These numbers are startling considering the relative strength of the economy. If people are this pessimistic when times are pretty good, what’s going to happen as this economy continues to slow and inevitably dips into a recession?

People fear the future of work: 37 percent of all currently employed Americans see automation as a direct threat to their current occupation. Exactly half of workers with no more than a high school diploma think robots and computers will take over the work that they currently do. While many of the highly educated and affluent think artificial intelligence and automation are great, a majority of Americans believe that it will worsen inequality. They don’t see the advantages.

There’s growing anxiety about retirement security: Among those who are currently in the workforce, 42 percent expect to receive no Social Security benefits when they eventually retire. Another 42 percent anticipate that benefits will be reduced from what they are today. Overall, 3 in 4 Americans expect older adults will be less prepared financially for retirement in 2050 than they are today; 83 percent predict that most people will have to work into their 70s in order to be able to afford to stop working; and 57 percent think people over 65 will have a worse standard of living in 2050 than they do today.

More expect the quality of public schools to get worse than better by 2050, and 77 percent of Americans worry about their ability to provide a quality education for the students of tomorrow. This concern is shared across party lines.

Six in 10 Americans predict that health care will be less affordable in 2050 than it is today.

The same share of people thinks the condition of the planet will be worse in 2050. Only 16 percent think the environment will be better. Meanwhile, 2 in 3 Americans predict a major worldwide energy crisis that will hamper our economy sometime in the next 30 years.

About half of Americans believe that a majority nonwhite population will lead to more racial and ethnic conflicts. Many white people especially fear demographic change. By 2050, the Census Bureau predicts the United States will be a majority-minority country. The Pew poll shows that 35 percent believe that’s good, 23 percent say it will be bad and the rest don’t think it’s good or bad. Overall, 40 percent believe race relations will be worse in 2050 than they are now.

Six in 10 Americans believe that the U.S. will be less important in the world in 2050 than it is now. And 53 percent expect that China definitely or probably will overtake us as the world’s main superpower within the next three decades.

There are also deep worries about the future of faith, marriage and family: Overall, 43 percent say they are “very” worried about the nation’s moral values while another 34 percent are “fairly” worried. Half the country sees religion being less important to American life in 2050. A 46 percent plurality expects that fewer people will have children. And a 53 percent majority thinks people in 2050 will be less likely to get married than they are today. Only 7 percent predict that people will be more likely to marry in the future.

That finding comes amid fresh evidence that America is suffering epidemic levels of aloneness. Another major poll published this week, the General Social Survey, shows that just over half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 do not have a steady romantic partner. That’s up dramatically from 33 percent in 2004, which was the lowest figure since the question was first posed in 1986, and it’s up from 45 percent in 2016.

“The shift has helped drive singledom to a record high among the overall public, among whom 35 percent say they have no steady partner,” Lisa Bonos and Emily Guskin report. “There are several other trends that go along with the increase in young single Americans. Women are having fewer children, and they’re having them later in life. The median age of first marriage is increasing. … According to the General Social Survey data, 41 percent of Democrats are without a steady partner, compared with only 29 percent of Republicans.”

Tribalism alert: Back to the Pew poll, 2 in 3 Americans predict that the country will be more politically divided in 2050 than it is now, including 68 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of Democrats. Only 26 percent of adults think we will be less polarized in 30 years than we are now.

Other surveys have shown similar levels of pessimism about polarization. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll in 2017 found that 36 percent of Americans were “not proud” of U.S. democracy, for example, at least twice as many as said this in both 2014 and 1996. That survey also found 71 percent saying they think partisan disagreements have reached a dangerous new normal. Most of this group (39 percent) thought this was the new normal, rather than temporary. Seven in 10 respondents thought divisions in this era are at least as big as during the Vietnam War, including 77 percent of people who were adults in the 1970s.

Finally, most Americans don’t think solutions to our problems will come from Washington. In fact, 55 percent in the Pew poll said Washington will have a more negative impact than a positive one. The country continues to be divided over the role of government: Six in 10 fear the government will do too little to solve problems, while 39 percent worry that the feds will be too involved in issues that are better left to businesses and individuals. These people are counting on scientists, entrepreneurs and educators to get us out of the malaise.

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