May 12, 2014

What will become of America’s kids?

America's kids and their futuresBy nature, Americans are an optimistic lot. Despite their resolutely negative opinion of economic conditions, majorities have consistently said that next year things will get better. Indeed, a Pew Research Center in-depth analysis in 2013 for the Council on Foreign RelationsRenewing America initiative concluded that “despite the American people’s struggles with this extended period of economic difficulty, their core values and beliefs about economic opportunity, and the nation’s economic outlook, remain largely optimistic.”

Yet, the public has somewhat conflicted views about the economic prospects for the next generation. When asked about the future prospects of “children today,” Americans generally said that when today’s kids grow up, they would be worse off financially than their parents. Nearly two-in-three respondents expressed that view in a Pew Research Center survey conducted in spring 2013. It is an opinion that was shared by rich and poor, young and old, men and women. Similar if not greater pessimism was also apparent in 10 of 13 advanced nations polled by Pew Research’s Global Attitudes Project.

While this is a pretty glum judgment about what lies ahead for today’s children, Americans’ optimism resurfaces when people are asked about their own kids. In 2012, despite the hard times of recent years, a plurality (42%) said that their own children will be better off, and an additional 19% say their children will be at least as well off as they are. Just 28% percent thought their own children will be worse off than they are when they reach adulthood. Less affluent segments of the public, including women, the less well-educated, Latinos and African Americans were particularly more likely to think that their children will be better off financially than they have been. There is a partisan divide as well, with more Democrats than Republicans, and in particular, Tea Party members, expecting their children to be better off than they have been. 

However, when predictions about one’s children’s futures are compared with what people say about their own experiences, there are some indications of pessimism. As many as 58% say they are better off than were their parents at their age. But just about half of this group (30%) say their own children will match them in doing better than their parents, while about as many (28%) do not say their own children will top them.

Young Americans, blacks, Latinos and Democrats more often than their demographic counterparts say both that they are better off than their parents and that their own children will be even better off. Whites, Republicans and especially members of the Tea Party say less often than average that they are better off than their parents and that their own children will top them.

On balance it seems that the closer one gets to home, the more positive people are about their children’s prospects. The country’s kids will not do so well, but my own kids will at least match me or do better. One qualifier is that a sizable number of Americans, who have done better than their own parents, don’t see their own children topping them.

Somewhat muted optimism about one’s children’s prospects, and all out pessimism about the “next generation” more generally, may be explained in part by the fact that people in advanced nations, such as the U.S., Germany and Great Britain, are less likely to see prospects for economic growth than the publics of emerging economies such as China, Brazil, Chile and Malaysia, where there is great optimism about the next generation.

Topics: Economics and Personal Finances, Generations and Age

  1. Photo of Andrew Kohut

    is founding director of Pew Research Center.


  1. Paul3 years ago

    How does “home schooled” kid compare with public school education, and how does 9 months public school kids compare to year round school kids?

  2. rhkennerly3 years ago

    Gee, same old doom and gloom about the younger generation. What’s wrong with kids today?

    It’s clear we are going through a major economic sea change not seen since 1929 or the civil war. But we will come through it changed, but fine. And so will the kids.

    America, as a nation, has great strength and resources.

  3. Nicholas Penning3 years ago

    What can kids do when they leave high school today? Where have our factories gone, and why?

    1. slk3 years ago

      so potus will solve the problem with more taxpayers money!!! my concern is, if the taxes they took to care for the infrastuctures, wasn’t used for what they were “supposed” to do with, how can i, with a clear conscience, expect, more tax money will be used to fix the problems!!! the easier solution, is who you elect for office!!! i really don’t care for millions going to chinese engineers to fix bridges in california!!! checkout youtube for abc’s report on that!!!

  4. marly3 years ago

    I am 82 and thankfully prospered better than my parents and their second spouses altogether, but I do not visualize equal success for my 3 children/6 grandchildren. But, too, they are not focused in the same manner as I was. This could be due in part to me not thoroughly directing that aspect of their lives…..the other part being that they chose their own priorities over mine!!

    1. slk3 years ago

      your children and grand children, didn’t go to the same schools we did!!! not once, did a teacher ever try to steer me in a political way!!! it started in the colleges, and has trickled down to elementary schools!!! when you are taught that you “deserve better”, no matter if you put in an effort or not, you’re sending the wrong message!!! owning a house used to be the American dream, now they are being told, it’s your right!!! did you bring up your children, to have four or more children, and flip burgers and demand $15 an hour??? i bet you didn’t!!! but they got that idea from some place!!! i don’t think you did anything wrong, and someone made their minds up for them!!!

      1. Nicholas Penning3 years ago

        Good heavens, what a cruel and presumptive reply! As the spouse of a recently retired teacher, I can assure you that what you say children are taught has not a parcel of truth.