Between a rocky presidential election, an ongoing global pandemic and protests about police violence, it can seem tough to be an American right now. But there is a reason for hope: A new survey of millennials and Gen-Zers reveal great optimism about the American dream. It also highlights the top challenges facing the generations — namely, preserving the environment and access to affordable health care and education.
The survey, conducted by Echelon Insights and commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation, asked 2,002 members of Gen Z (ages 13-23) and 2,002 millennials (ages 24-39) a broad range of questions “seeking to explore attitudes about opportunity, the American Dream, and key issues such as education, the environment and their communities.”
Among the topline insights, 67% of respondents believe that they “have the opportunity to achieve the American dream.” When asked what “the American dream” means, the answer was often “opportunity.” One respondent explained: “I don’t think I envision the American Dream in the stereotypical light of ‘white picket fence, four-person family, financial success’ type of way, I think I view it more as America serving as an opportunity for people to better their lives, in a society where people are equal and all have the same access to resources.” Freedom, financial well-being, family and career success ranked as the top four indicators of achieving the dream.
Opportunity still exists, and, despite living through several economic downturns, young people haven’t given up on it. Gen Zers and millennials are optimistic that they’ll achieve a better life than their parents. Fifty-six percent of Gen Z and 44% of millennial respondents believed they will do better than their folks, although the results were slightly less optimistic for their generation as a whole.
Interestingly, Black, Hispanic and Asian respondents were the most optimistic responding to this question at 59%, 57% and 54%, respectively. This, in the face of ongoing political battles over racial equality, shows that young minorities maintain strong faith in American opportunity.
Of course, when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, 62% report that the recent changes in society have made it harder to succeed in life. However, 66% also believe that it will not “permanently change how my generation lives.” Stephen, 25, explains: “COVID-19 has caused people in my generation to modify their path towards their goals and may have hindered some in the short term, but I don’t think it will ultimately determine if they are successful or not.”
That’s not to say the survey was all roses. The unaffordable costs of higher education and lack of access to health care stand out as issues weighing on the minds of young Americans. Around 40% of respondents called both an “extremely or very big problem.” Many young people felt unprepared for dealing with the challenges of adulthood, with 37% reporting concern about “not having been taught important life skills” and “not having the right connections.”
The poor state of America’s public education system may be to blame. Allen, 34, explained: “A millennial stereotype I hear a lot is that we were babied in our childhood and went into adult life mostly unprepared. While I feel this is mostly untrue, I would say that having gone through the traditional education process, the education system did not properly prepare us for the work force.”
The environment is also a key concern, with 86% of respondents ranking it as “extremely or very important” to “breathe fresh air and drink clean water.” More respondents believed that food and water they eat and drink will be better in their lifetime. However, they were not as optimistic about the quality of air, rivers, oceans and the Earth’s climate.
For the young, even the unrest that has rattled our nation is seen as a chance for positive growth — a point of optimism that younger Americans will lead the way on political change and expanding opportunity. Ryan, 34, explains: “I think the protests and the issues that are being discussed will help our generation and provide more opportunity to the future generations. It is forcing people to talk about and work toward change that will benefit us all.”
Politicians should be paying attention and taking notes. To court young voters, they should understand what matters to us. As it turns out, most young people want the same things as past generations: the opportunity to make an honest living and the freedom to create their own life. However, challenges to health care, education and the environment persist, and those must be adequately addressed.
Even so, it’s good to hear that the common smears painting Gen Zers and millennials as radical or entitled are untrue. In fact, our faith in the American Dream is still alive and well. We just want it to be even better than it has ever been.
• Casey Given is the executive director of Young Voices.