As middle class shrinks, American optimism put to the test

Boundless optimism has long been seen as America's most exceptional characteristic. But that unique worldview is under strain amid economic, political, and security crises. Can it be saved?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Millennials, such as Kelly Billigmeier, a student at Frederick Community College in Frederick, Md., face greater economic challenges than members of the two preceding generations, yet they remain strongly optimistic.

On its face, a study released this week already seems a major blow to America's sense of itself: The middle class is no longer a majority of the nation's population.

But the Pew Research Center study also strikes a much deeper chord, adding to mounting evidence that arguably America's most exceptional characteristic – its boundless optimism – is under increasing strain.

By some measures, the study's findings are positive: The ranks of upper-income households grew more rapidly than lower-income households. But the ranks of the lower class grew, too, and both they and those remaining in the middle class are having to make do with a shrinking share of America's economic pie. For the wealthy, times are good; for many other Americans, however, there is a jarring and unfamiliar sense of uncertainty.

Since at least the days when French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville proclaimed that Americans “have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man ... They all consider society as a body in a state of improvement,” the country's historic optimism has been underlain by a thriving middle class. And there is no doubt that neither the American middle class nor its optimism are dead. The middle class still makes up only a hair under 50 percent of the population, according to Pew, and visitors to the United States continue to be astonished by Americans' confidence that they can reshape the world for good. 

But the strain is evident. Last year, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that more than three-quarters of respondents were not confident that their children would lead better lives, a record high for the survey. 

The causes go beyond just economics, many suggest.

Even during the Great Depression, 45 percent of white males polled by Gallup in 1936 and 1937 expected a better future, but the polling suggests they had an abiding faith in President Franklin Roosevelt and the power of government. Amid a deep sense of political dysfunction, that hope has waned in recent years.  

Meanwhile, the Islamic State has made Americans' sense of insecurity more acute than at any time since 9/11, according to one poll.

The one big asterisk, however, is an important one. The generation that has grown up amid all these seemingly wearing trends – Millennials – remains unabashedly optimistic. Part of that, a 2014 Pew study suggests, is "the timeless confidence of youth." But the split also hints at a different worldview, with Millennials' outlook shaped by different forces from the ones that shaped their elders.

Millennials "find satisfaction in entirely new sources," writes Peter Coy of Bloomberg Business, citing Pew research. "Their digital lives are hugely important to them, for example. So they may be less alienated than they appear – they just live in different kinds of communities."

One implication is that the conditions that many Americans see as evidence of decline are, to Millennials, all they have ever known – and they are not daunted.

'Not just whining'

American optimism is unique. From De Tocqueville's tour in the 1830s to The Atlantic magazine earlier this year, observers have sought to understand how the economic, social, and political conditions of the United States have combined to create a wholly original worldview.  

But for many Americans, the current picture seems to be growing dimmer. The Great Recession has reshaped expectations so parents are less likely to see their children with the same economic opportunities they had. Over the longer term, the decline of the middle class, has corresponded with the decline of the working-class jobs that provided a steady and secure income to [parents of?] Baby Boomers and Generation Xers.  

“The disappointment and the anger of the middle class is not just whining, it is based on real economics,” Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Reuters.

This is particularly true in in the South, which has fared significantly worse than the rest of the country according to a host of economic factors. To many, this contraction of the American Dream, especially in the heart of Red America, explains the rise of Donald Trump. 

"Listen to a Trump speech and you will hear optimism. That the myriad problems facing America, both domestic and abroad, are solvable," writes Brian Joondeph of the American Thinker. "Trump has plans. They may be thin on specifics, or at first glance, impractical, but regardless of the issue, he promises, 'I'll fix it.' "

A new NBC New Wall Street Journal poll finds that only 22 percent of likely Republican voters are optimistic about the direction of the country, compared with 89 percent of likely Democratic voters. Yet Trump's success is only a symptom of the broader lack of faith in American politics, others say.

In general, declining optimism "says a lot about how shaken we are by the inability of our political system to address seemingly easy issues, and it leaves us worried about the future," said Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster, to The Washington Post

A determined generation

Millennials, however, present a picture of a group determined to change their generation's narrative. 

Though Millennials are the first generation of the modern era to have worse economic prospects than either of their two preceding generations, they remain "the nation’s most stubborn economic optimists," according to the 2014 Pew study. And it could go beyond mere youthfulness. A 1974 Gallup survey found that young adults were less confident about America's future than their elders. Now, Pew finds, the reverse is true.

Millennials are also less bound to partisan solutions to political problems – with more of them "open to ideas on both sides of the political spectrum than was the case with previous generations," writes Elite Daily, an online website by Millennials for Millennials, in an analysis of the 2014 Pew data. "It is evident that Millennials desire to change the structure and framework of the US government in order to accomplish these goals."

The Black Lives Matter movement offers a taste of Millennials' desire to reshape society. And it also points to another perhaps surprising well of American optimism: Currently, the most optimistic group in America are African-Americans. Some 90 percent of black Americans said they were optimistic about the nation's future, according to the new NBC News poll.

Liberal commentator Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine offered one view of this optimism, citing the message President Obama leaves with White House interns: 

We get White House interns to come in and they work at the White House, and they're there for six months, and then I usually speak to them at the end of six months. And I always tell them that despite how hard sometimes the world seems to be, and all you see on television is war and conflict and poverty and violence, the truth is that if you had to choose when to be born, not knowing where or who you would be, in all of human history, now would be the time. Because the world is less violent, it is healthier, it is wealthier, it is more tolerant and it offers more opportunity than any time in human history for more people than any time in human history.

Mr. Chait concludes: "Optimism is the most fundamental truth of American history." 

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