American Society: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

The Good

Is there anything Good about American Society? A large share of Americans are turned off by the rancor of politics and the gridlock in Washington. Many wish their elected leaders would seek pragmatic compromises. However they are less likely to vote, and most lack the temperament and vocal cords to attract attention in today’s media culture. They might be seen as America’s new silent majority.1

According to Pew Research today’s Millennials – well-educated, tech savvy, and underemployed – are at risk of becoming the first generation in American history to have a lower standard of living than their parents. Meantime, about 10,000 Baby Boomers are retiring every single day, many of them not as well prepared financially as they’d hoped. The graying of our population will put stresses on our social safety net and present our elected leaders with a daunting challenge: how to keep faith with the old without bankrupting the young.

Americans are more racially and ethnically diverse than in the past, and the U.S. is projected to be even more diverse in the coming decades. By 2055, the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority. Much of this change has been (and will be) driven by immigration. Nearly 59 million immigrants have arrived in the U.S. in the past 50 years, mostly from Latin America and Asia. Today, a near-record 14% of the country’s population is foreign born compared with just 5% in 1965. Over the next five decades, the majority of U.S. population growth is projected to be linked to new Asian and Hispanic immigration. American attitudes about immigration and diversity are supportive of these changes for the most part. More Americans say immigrants strengthen the country than say they burden it, and most say the U.S.’s increasing ethnic diversity makes it a better place to live.

The 2016 electorate will be the most diverse in U.S. history due to strong growth among Hispanic eligible voters, particularly U.S.-born youth. There are also wide gaps opening up between the generations on many social and political issues. Young adult Millennials are much more likely than their elders to hold liberal views on many political and social issues, though they are also less likely to identify with either political party: 50% call themselves political independents.

Millennials, young adults born after 1980, are the new generation to watch. They have likely surpassed Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) as the largest U.S. generation and differ significantly from their elders in many ways. They are the most racially diverse generation in American history: 43% of Millennial adults are non-white, the highest share of any generation. And while they are on track to be the most educated generation to date, this achievement has come at a cost: Many Millennials are struggling with student debt. In addition to the weak labor market of recent years, student debt is perhaps one reason why many are still living at home. Despite these troubles, Millennials are the most upbeat about their financial future: More than eight-in-ten say they either currently have enough money to lead the lives they want or expect to in the future.

As the Supreme Court prepares to decide a key case involving states’ requirements to recognize same-sex marriage, public support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally continues its rapid rise: A 57% majority of Americans now favor allowing same-sex marriage and 39% oppose. As recently as five years ago, more opposed (48%) same-sex marriage than supported it (42%).

The Bad

The Pew Research Center reported in 2014 that nearly a quarter of American adults had not read a single book. As in, they hadn’t cracked a paperback, fired up a Kindle, or even hit play on an audiobook while in the car. The number of non-book-readers has nearly tripled since 1978.

Across the world, higher education is linked to higher levels of employment and life evaluation, making it the proverbial ticket to a great job and a great life. But the most recent evidence suggests that the link between higher education and graduates’ readiness for today’s rapidly changing workplace may be broken.

On immigration. U.S. public seldom has welcomed refugees into country.

Bruce Jenner first became famous by winning the gold in the men’s decathlon at the 1976 Olympics, but in a recent interview with ABC News, he transformed his fame into something else — immediately raising the visibility of transgender adults in America. By one reputable estimate, transgender adults represent about 0.3% of the U.S. adult population, and about 5% of the adult lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population identifies primarily as transgender.

LGBT adults see relatively little social acceptance for transgender people. Fully eight-in-ten said there is only a little (59%) or no (21%) social acceptance of this group. Even among LGBT adults, a relatively small share in our survey said they could relate to transgender people: Only 15% of gay men, 11% of lesbians and 12% of bisexuals said they share “a lot” of common concerns and identity with transgender adults.

The Ugly

A staggering 75% of the American public believe corruption is “widespread” in the U.S. government. Not incompetence, but corruption. For the second consecutive year, dissatisfaction with government edged out the economy as the problem more Americans identified as the nation’s top problem in 2015. According to Gallup’s monthly measure of the most important problem facing the U.S., an average of 16% of Americans in 2015 mentioned some aspect of government, including President Barack Obama, Congress or political conflict, as the country’s chief problem. The economy came in second with 13% mentioning it, while unemployment and immigration tied for third at 8%.

Pervasive gloom about the World Economy. The public mood about the economy has worsened since 2008 in eight of 15 countries for which there is comparable data, while it is essentially unchanged in four others. The Chinese are the lone exception. They have been positive about their economy for the past decade.

Less than a third of Americans (31%) say the U.S. economy is doing well. That figure is up 13 percentage points from 2011. (But it is down 19 points from 2007, the year before the financial crunch began.) A median of just 16% of Europeans surveyed think their economy is performing up to par. That includes just 2% of the Greeks and 6% of the Spanish and Italians. Among Europeans, only the Germans (73%) give their economy a thumbs up. And just 7% of Japanese believe their economy is doing well.

Guns — a symbol of freedom from government tyranny to many people — are now a key voting issue.

To make matters worse, a dark cloud appears to be hanging over the growth of small business, which is where virtually all new GDP growth and good jobs originate. Simply put, startups and shootups (small businesses that grow larger) have been in a death spiral. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that the total number of business startups and business closures per year crossed for the first time in 2008.

In Politics we discover a rise in identity-based animus of one party toward the other that extends far beyond the issues. These days Democrats and Republicans no longer stop at disagreeing with each other’s ideas. Many in each party now deny the other’s facts, disapprove of each other’s lifestyles, avoid each other’s neighborhoods, impugn each other’s motives, doubt each other’s patriotism, can’t stomach each other’s news sources, and bring different value systems to such core social institutions as religion, marriage and parenthood. It’s as if they belong not to rival parties but alien tribes.

A new Bloomberg Politics poll found that 53% of Americans don’t want to accept any Syrian refugees at all; 11% more would accept only Christian refugees from Syria. More than two dozen governors, most of them Republicans, have said they’ll oppose Syrian refugees being resettled in their states. And on Thursday the House of Representatives passed a bill blocking the admission of Syrian and Iraqi refugees unless they pass strict background checks.

Around the world seven-in-ten people live on $10 or less per day: “The vast majority of the world’s population lives on a budget that falls well short of the poverty line in advanced economies. Specifically, 4.4 billion people – 71% of the global population of 6.2 billion – lived on $10 or less per day in 2011, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of the most recently available data.”


  1. Taylor, Paul. The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown. PublicAffairs; Reprint edition (January 26, 2016)

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