Second METLIFE study of the American dream shows individuals working harder to make ends meet and think economy is heading in the wrong direction, but still optimistic
As Traditional Safety Nets Continue to Shrink,More than 90% of Americans See Employee Benefits as Critical, Even if Workers Pay Most or All of the Cost –
– Primed for Action, Americans Gear Up to Go-it-Alone; Three in Four Taking Financial Security and Creation of a Safety Net into Their Own Hands –
– Majority View ’08 Election as Critical in Quest for American Dream –
NEW YORK.– Over the past year, the public’s economic mood has darkened considerably, with 86% of individuals now reporting that the U.S. economy is headed in the wrong direction, up from 64% just one year ago, according to a new study by MetLife. More than nine in ten individuals (93%) believe that Americans have to work as hard as or harder than ever just to get by, up from 87%. Yet, an intriguing dichotomy is emerging. Despite this collective pessimism about the outlook for the country, the American spirit of personal optimism and self-reliance is holding strong; 85% of individuals expect their own financial situation to be about the same or even better this year, compared to last year.
This is a key finding from MetLife’s second Study of the American Dream, which reveals that the American dream is still alive despite growing concerns about rising energy costs, declining home values and rising levels of personal debt. More than one-third (37%) of the individuals surveyed believe they have achieved the American dream – which a majority define first and foremost as “financial security.” Over the past year, there has been a significant increase in the number of Baby Boomers who report that they have achieved the dream – up 8 percentage points to 40%. Among Americans who have yet to achieve it, 74% believe that it’s possible to achieve the American dream in their lifetime, up from 67% last year.
Growing Concern about the Economy, Future Generations
Despite such personal optimism, Americans are deeply concerned on a collective level about the country’s economic outlook. Across generations, roughly half (49%) of Americans expect the economy to be worse in 2008 than it was in 2007. Causing particular uneasiness are energy costs – cited by 58% of Americans as a reason the economy is off track, up from 41% last year – as well as healthcare costs (36%), the national budget deficit (31%), high personal debt levels (30%) and the outlook for Social Security (25%). Ninety-three percent are concerned that rising energy prices will have a negative impact on the American dream over the next 5 - 10 years.
“As traditional safety nets continue to erode and the cost of daily living expenses rise, Americans are feeling a collective loss of optimism and control,” said C. Robert Henrikson, chairman of the board, president and chief executive officer, MetLife, Inc. “On a personal level, however, Americans are gearing up to take their finances into their own hands and believe that they will achieve the American dream in their lifetime.”
A Shifting Burden and Its Effect on Future Generations
Consistent with last year’s finding, roughly two-thirds (64%) of Americans feel pressure as a result of diminished confidence in government-sponsored benefits. An equal percentage is frustrated by shrinking employer-sponsored benefits, which – due to competitive and cost pressures – are increasingly shifting to the individual. Slightly more than half of Americans (52%) believe that they are carrying more financial burdens for their family than their parents’ generation had to. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of Americans are worried that the financial burden shift will lessen future generations’ (such as their children’s) ability to lead a comfortable life. Seventy-four percent of Generation Y workers (18-31 year olds) feel that the bar is constantly rising in terms of satisfying the basic necessities of life, compared with 65% of workers overall.
Primed for Action: A Three-Pronged Approach
There are several indicators that Americans are gearing up to protect their own financial futures: 1) their interest in creating their own personal safety net, 2) their desire for their employer to provide employee benefits and advice at the workplace, and 3) their level of engagement with the 2008 Presidential election.
“There is a strong, almost unflappable, desire to achieve the American dream, which hasn’t dampened even given today’s economic realities,” noted Beth Hirschhorn, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, MetLife. “This confidence is not necessarily a sign of denial. Rather, we reconcile the clashing forces of macro pessimism and micro optimism by the fact that Americans appear primed to take action.”
Ready to Create Their Own Personal Safety Net
In light of uncertainty about traditional social and corporate safety nets, more than three-quarters (77%) of Americans say they are planning to build their own personal safety nets to protect their family’s financial future. Yet, the products that they think should comprise a personal financial safety net differ by generational cohort. While both Baby Boomers and GenYers are first and foremost interested in health insurance that continues through retirement (64% and 57%, respectively), followed by a retirement savings plan such as a 401(k) (49% and 52% respectively), Boomers rank income annuities (45%) and long-term care insurance (31%) next; whereas, GenYers would include life insurance (38%) followed by income annuities (31%) in their personal safety net.
Counting on the Workplace for Benefits, Advice
There is an important role that employers can play in helping individuals create their own safety net: providing access to employee benefits – even if employees have to fund most or all of the costs themselves. Across generations, 95% of individuals believe employee-funded benefits are important. Younger employees, in particular, are also looking for benefits education and advice. More than one in four (26%) would like more education from their employers about the products they should purchase to create their own personal financial safety nets and one in five workers would like financial planning in the workplace to help them make sound decisions.
Making Their Vote Count
Finally, Americans are preparing to take political action to keep the American dream within reach. Three in four Americans believe that the 2008 Presidential election will be more important than past elections – and roughly the same percentage (71%) believe the election’s outcome may impact their ability to achieve the dream. Gen Xers and GenYers are eyeing the election particularly closely, with 75% of each demographic saying the election’s results will impact their ability to achieve the American dream.
The most important election issues cited by Americans are the economy (26%), the war in Iraq (17%) and healthcare (12%). While members of the Silent Generation are most concerned about the War in Iraq, 80% of all Americans – and 86% of GenYers – are concerned that ongoing conflict in Iraq will compromise their ability to achieve the American dream.
“Across generations, Americans are eager to take action and make life better for themselves and their families,” added Hirschhorn. “Their strong sense of optimism and self-reliance are giving them the confidence they’ll need to shoulder the burdens that are shifting to them. But, realistically, to keep the American dream within reach, they’ll need help from employers, financial advisors and public policymakers.”
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