Introduction and Summary
Americans see the 20th century as a time of great economic, social and technological progress. As individuals, as families, as members of various social and demographic groups, nearly two-thirds of Americans say they have improved their circumstances since the 1950s, and even larger numbers see economic and social gains for many segments of society over the past half-century.
Science and technology are widely seen as the engines of the century’s economic prosperity. Americans point to advancements in these fields as principal reasons for improvements in their own family’s well-being, and they celebrate the inventions and conveniences of the 20th century. A host of innovations ranging from the automobile to birth control pills to the Internet are lauded for making life today better.
When considering America’s collective achievements, overwhelming majorities credit the Constitution, free elections and the free enterprise system for the nation’s successes of the past 100 years. It is the system — along with the culture and character of the American people — that fosters our progress, not mere good luck or even deeply-held religious beliefs.
Yet beneath this picture of economic well-being and national accomplishment, there is a parallel story not nearly so triumphant. Most Americans do not see life in the United States overall as any better at the close of the century than it was in the 1950s. A substantial minority — three-in-ten people — say it’s even worse. Further muddying the picture, today’s teenagers are one of two groups that the public sees as worse off than their peers of 50 years ago.
Misgivings about America today are focused on the moral climate, with people from all walks of life looking skeptically on the ways in which the country has changed both culturally and spiritually. While the civil rights movement and women in the workplace are uniformly endorsed, many other social trends, including the growth of the suburbs and rock music, get a mixed review, and still others are lamented, including the greater acceptance of divorce and legalized abortion.
The distinction that the public makes between material achievements and societal shortcomings is apparent throughout the Pew Research Center survey examining the 20th century. For instance, new technologies — the space program, computers, medical breakthroughs — are seen as America’s greatest achievements of the past 100 years, while moral decline is prominent on the list of failures.
These are the principal findings of a Pew Research Center nationwide survey of 1,546 adults conducted April 6 through May 6, 1999 — a period punctuated by the shootings at a high school in Littleton, Colorado. While few differences were observed between the results before and after the tragedy, those that were noted underscore the central finding that the good life today is being tarnished by moral decay. After the Littleton incident, a significant drop was observed in the way the public views life in America overall, and an increase was seen in the number of people who say that life for teenagers is worse today than it was in the 1950s. A summary of the survey findings follows, with detailed analysis beginning on page 5.
Families Doing Better
One of the most striking findings in the survey is the gap between how Americans positively view their own lives compared to their more muted perspective on life in America overall. While 63% say their own lives are better than that of their families in 1950, only 44% say that life in the U.S. improved during that period. To the public, the success of the sum is less than that of its constituent parts.
Among those who rate their own lives as better than their family members in the 1950s, the economy, modern conveniences and technology are most often cited as the reasons why. Consistent with this rationale, the view that life for one’s family has improved is especially prevalent among the wealthy and those with at least some college training. Americans with annual incomes of less than $20,000 form the only significant demographic group in which a majority does not see their own lives as better than those of their predecessors.
Among those who rate life in the U.S. as worse, the moral climate is to blame. Overwhelmingly, people in this group mention factors such as crime, family breakdown, lack of respect, and drugs as the causes for the decline. Even the minority who rate their own lives as worse blame moral breakdown for their problems as often as they do economic woes.
A majority of the public overall sees teenagers, who are potentially most vulnerable to these problems, as worse off now than their counterparts were in previous generations. This evaluation of the quality of life for teens is particularly noteworthy because among 15 major social groups tested, today’s adolescents and farmers are the only groups that Americans see as worse off today.
By large margins, the public sees the lives of almost every other group as improved since the 1950s. Women, the disabled, African Americans, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, senior citizens, and the working class are all seen as better off at the end of the century, with only small minorities saying any of these groups is worse off. Historically considered disadvantaged, many of these groups benefited from the social and economic changes of the latter part of the century and received some measure of government protection.
Successes as Old as the Constitution, as New as Technology
Despite today’s political cynicism, Americans are near unanimous in crediting the system for the country’s accomplishments. Indeed, more than eight-in-ten people say the Constitution, free elections and the free market are the reasons for the nation’s success. The country’s natural resources and its human resources — the cultural diversity and character of the American people — are also acknowledged as keys to U.S. success.
When Americans today think about the nation’s accomplishments during the 20th century, about how life has improved, and even about the government’s successes, technology is the answer. Nothing else is close — not winning the conflicts that defined America in this century (the World Wars or the Cold War), not the civil rights movement that recast society, not the Social Security program that lifted so many seniors out of poverty.
The space program is cited as the country’s single greatest achievement of the century, and inventions as old as the radio and as recent as the Internet are heartily endorsed as changes for the better. Just about the only scientific innovations not heralded by majorities of the public are nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.
While medical advances are cited by some as America’s greatest achievement, the public is relatively uneasy about many recent breakthroughs in pharmacology and biotechnology. Just slim pluralities endorse the advent of Prozac, Viagra and fertility drugs as changes for the better, and almost half (49%) of Americans see the cloning of sheep as a change for the worse.
The century’s various social trends get an even more mixed verdict. From a high of 84% calling the civil rights movement a positive change to lows of 21% saying the same of telemarketing and just 14% finding rap music a plus, attitudes about social trends vary widely. The same is true of significant personal finance changes: 69% say mutual funds are an improvement; just 22% say the wide use of credit cards is a change for the better in this country.
Looking back over important events of the century, John F. Kennedy’s assassination is the single most powerful memory. Nine-in-ten Americans who are old enough to remember say they know exactly what they were doing when they heard the news of the 35th president’s murder. The only other events to come close are the attack on Pearl Harbor and those that occurred in the late 1990s.
Kennedy’s assassination also stands as the most chronologically distant memory that is shared by a majority of the public. Neil Armstrong’s 1969 walk on the moon is the only other event of the 1960s to hold a majority position in America’s collective memory today; Richard Nixon’s resignation in the 1970s does as well.
Many of the people and events that shaped the nation’s history in the 20th century — Franklin Roosevelt, World War II, the 1929 stock market crash — are remembered personally by very few Americans today. Instead, the country is united in its recollections of only recent and less historically significant events, such as the death of Princess Diana, the bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma, and the space shuttle Challenger explosion.
These events, however, are central to our cultural identity today, and it is in cultural terms that Americans reflect on the various decades of the 20th century. With the exceptions of the Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II in the 1940s, Americans use cultural references to define the decades, coming up with words like roaring and flappers for the 1920s, happy and rock and roll for the 1950s, hippies and turmoil for the 1960s, disco and drugs for the 1970s, fun and greed for the 1980s, and high-tech and fast-paced for the 1990s.