Americans brim with confidence at century's end

Alan and Monica Grinnell were smiling as they marveled at the newly renovated Grand Central Station's vast, spit-polished interior. Tourists from Oregon, they'd just come back from Ellis Island, full of optimism about the future - for themselves and the country as a whole.

"We just got a real sense of the mix that makes this country so strong," says Mr. Grinnell, a software engineer. "The best people from all over the world are here."

Like the Grinnells, Americans from all walks of life appear to be ready to bound into the new millennium with a strong sense of optimism, despite an undercurrent of wariness about the impact of globalization on the economy and national security.

While Americans overall tend to be fairly happy and optimistic, experts say the nation is exuding an unusual degree of confidence at the end of the so-called "American century" - reflecting in part the good economic times and the nation's unrivaled military standing in the world.

Indeed, a new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released yesterday finds that 81 percent of Americans are hopeful about what the 21st century holds for them and their families. Fully 70 percent believe the country will do well.

"I was surprised, particularly in relationship to many of the problems that people discussed and anticipate," says Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Center. "But I think the longer people are in a good frame of mind about things, the more optimistic they are."

Overall, things have been going pretty well for much of the country the past five years - both economically and in terms of social indicators, like the drop in the juvenile-crime rate. Public-opinion experts say that's helped temper concerns about some of the disasters that Americans predict will also come with the millennium.

The 'Big One' in California

More than 90 percent believe a major earthquake will strike California. More than 75 percent believe global warming will create severe environmental problems, and 64 percent expect a major terrorist attack on the US.

A majority also worries that troubles in a global economy could negatively affect the US economy. Such concerns are tied to wariness about globalism and environmental factors outside the country's control.

But that appears to be counterbalanced by Americans' faith in the strides made by science and technology, which they also believe will triumph in the next century.

"Sixty years ago there was no TV, so nothing should surprise you about what we can do," says Sal Brancato, a telecommunications salesman from New York.

Americans have always had a roller-coaster affair with technology. In the 1960s, the country was so confident about the success of nuclear power that some scientists predicted by the millennium electricity would be practically free. Just 10 years later, many Americans were blaming science and technology for the country's environmental problems. Today technology again dazzles.

Even with Americans' proclivity for bravado and bullishness, social scientists say the high levels of optimism found in this poll - 8 in 10 Americans - come as a surprise.

"That's certainly bullish on the future," says David Myers of Hope College in Holland, Mich. He notes that from 1960 to 1994 things were going pretty well economically in this country, but important social indicators - juvenile crime, teen pregnancy, divorce - seemed to keep getting worse.

Most of those indicators began to turn around five years ago, and Mr. Myers believes that's another key factor fueling the optimism. But in his forthcoming book, "The American Paradox - Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty," Myers also warns of "illusory" optimism, which can set up unrealistic expectations. For instance, research has shown college students overwhelmingly believe they are less likely to become alcoholic and more likely to get a good job than their peers are.

One study of 137 recipients of marriage licenses found that they all knew that half of American marriages end in divorce, and yet most believed they'd stay together forever. Research has also shown that students who are overconfident tend to underprepare.

The problem, he says, is that unrealistic notions can leave people vulnerable to some of life's more difficult contingencies. "Optimism definitely beats pessimism in promoting self-efficacy, health, and well being," he writes. "Yet a dash of realism can save us from the perils of unrealistic optimism."

But many people credit the nation's great success to its unbounded faith in itself, which according to the Pew poll is riding particularly high right now. Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, says Americans occasionally go through periods where confidence in the country drops.

But only once, he says, in the early 1970s, with the nation reeling from Watergate, stagflation, and the defeat in Vietnam, did the negativity in the national experience bring about a "rise in pessimism and a loss of the idea of America being a special place."

No more 'yip-ins'

That's something Grinnell is reminded of as he stands at the center of Grand Central Station. More than 30 years ago, he came here for what was billed as a "yip-in" - a nonviolent protest against the status quo.

Thousands of young people showed up. The demonstration got rowdy. Some stood on top of the round information booth at the center of the main hall, breaking its glass ceiling. Police swat teams were called in. "They were beating people up, and I was a little kid from Oregon," he says. "I had never seen anything like it. I was not optimistic at that time. We thought the country was falling apart - but we were kids then, what did we know?"

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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