Americans Eye the Future

Many feel better off than their parents - but worry their children won't be. That doesn't have to be so.

American consumer sentiment remains positive. More Americans own their own homes. Life expectancy continues to rise. Poverty among the elderly is way down.

There is sharply less major crime. The percentage of citizens afraid to walk in their own neighborhoods is shrinking. Unemployment is the lowest in over a generation. Americans define themselves as religious in a vastly higher percentage (82 percent) than do citizens of similar industrial nations. Neighborhood racial integration is rising - as are black-white friendships. Percentages of young people graduating from high school and college have steadily risen. Some 85 percent say they're satisfied with their jobs, living standards, and their future prospects.

And yet ... 42 percent fear their children will be less well off financially. That's a jump from only 19 percent in 1985. (Then, 74 percent said their children would fare better.)

This striking snapshot of all those rising indicators contrasting with pessimism about the future generation comes from a remarkable profile of polls about US social trends. It was assembled by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research under Executive Director Everett Carll Ladd.

THE lesson of this things-are-so-good-they-can't-go-on-like-this scenario is that pessimists can feed off anything - even optimism. But no one is obligated to follow their lead.

The polls that have shown Americans feeling better off financially than their parents but with increasing unease about their children's financial future are particularly relevant at the moment. Once again pessimists are emerging to sing a new version of the- sky-is-falling chorus.

Some say Asian market troubles are coming to the US. Others forecast grinding deflation. Their argument is that, in order to prevent big job layoffs, Asians will export huge amounts of cheap goods - thus throwing Americans and Europeans producing similar goods out of work.

A half century record of expansive trade success refutes this. With few exceptions, trade has vastly improved living standards for all parties.

Note, also, that some of the rhetoric emerging after the global warming negotiations in Kyoto focuses on job losses in carbon dioxide-producing industries.

Then add concern that the US will burden the next generation by not revising Social Security and Medicaid.

Taken together, such fears help explain hesitance about our children's future - voiced by the 85 percent of adults satisfied with jobs, living standards, and their own futures.

There's some logic in that. But there's little evidence the pessimists may be proven right.

Of course, if they're merely pointing out that investors can't always expect 35 percent annual returns, they're correct. If they're saying economies and markets still go through cycles of expansion and slowdown, right again. And if they're saying we must be prepared to learn new job skills and ways of living in order to adapt to useful technological change or fend off environmental risks to the planet, fine.

But warnings against various forms of "irrational exuberance" are different from pessimism for its own sake. There is no sound reason that Asian nations won't reform their economic and political systems and recover. Their hard-working, money-saving, family-oriented citizens don't face a world so saturated with products and services that factories must be permanently shuttered. And innovation won't fail to keep pace with environmental needs.

Indeed, if either fear were justified, the world would have had to slow to a crawl many times in the past. Who would buy cars when there were so many horses? Who could sell computers when every office was equipped with clerks, adding machines, or abacuses? Coca Cola in a land of samovars?

IN short, Americans are right, in those polls, to take pride in how far they've come in this century. They are also understandably wary, in a world where unwary peoples let Hitler, Stalin, and their ilk recruit followers into bloody collective utopias. Right, also, to be concerned about the pied pipers of excess - whether of drugs, immorality, racism, political correctness, or despoiling of nature.

But a reassuring majority of Americans, through faith in a higher spiritual purpose shown in those polls, bring a moral underpinning to their work, family building, and community building. That quality shows up also in the way they innovate, spread prosperity, and, despite lapses, tackle social problems. That may explain why 83 percent of Americans told pollsters that, whatever their faults, America's institutions are basically sound. That is not fertile ground for pessimism.

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