11/9/2010 4:19 PM ET|
Getting ahead? You only think so
He's not bitter. "Hey, we're happy," he says. "But as far as the future is concerned for the kids, I don't know . . . When I was the age of my oldest son, I thought the world was my oyster. And I don't see much oyster out there these days."
How're we doing? Great!
This kind of lost ground is hard for any society to absorb, but ours is a nation that agrees that children should -- and will -- do better than their parents. We pride ourselves on progress.
Maybe that's why we don't -- or can't -- believe that we're losing ground. We tell researchers that we're doing great. The Pew Research Center, in 2008, surveyed people describing themselves as "middle class." Eighty-eight percent claimed they're doing as well as or better than their parents.
|Are you better off than your parents?|
|All middle class||67%||21%||10%|
|Source: Pew Research Center|
Even 68% of those earning under $30,000 told Pew researchers that they're at least as well off as their folks were.
Although well over half of all groups reported doing better than their parents, those most happy with their progress were minorities, married people and those making more than $100,000 a year.
If you're wondering whether the Pew Center made a mistake, it didn't. The National Opinion Research Center, which asks the same question every two years in its General Social Survey, got the same results in 2008:
|Is your standard of living better than your parents'?|
|Much better||Somewhat better||About the same||Somewhat worse||Much worse|
|Sources: National Opinion Research Center General Social Survey, Cheryl Russell|
You could argue that a lot has changed since these surveys were done two years ago. But Russell says such responses have been consistent over the years, through good times and bad, and she doesn't believe the results will differ much when the surveys are next updated.
"Actually, I've been railing about this for years. Americans have this perception that everything is progressing and they're getting ahead, and the reality is that they're not," says Russell. "It's been happening, literally, for decades for men."
She's got two explanations for why, despite these serious losses in earnings, we say we're doing as well or better than our parents:
- Things feel better. Many of us earn more than we did when we were younger. Salaries rise with years on the job and with increasing skills. As we accumulate some possessions, life doesn't feel like quite the struggle it used to be. We rarely measure ourselves against our parents at our age.
- Bling is cheap. Essentials like pensions, health care, college and housing may cost more, but there's no question that our homes are bigger than the ones we grew up in and we have lots more stuff -- much of it cheap imports, computers, cell phones, entertainment equipment, toys, clothes, shoes, cars and household goods.
"Our gadgets give us the illusion of plenty," Russell writes in her monthly newsletter. "They have lulled us into accepting a lower standard of living without asking why or demanding that policymakers do something to counteract the downward trend."
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