METLIFE STUDY REVEALS THAT THE AMERICAN DREAM IS STILL ALIVE, YET THE EROSION OF CORPORATE BENEFIT PROGRAMS AND SOCIAL SAFETY NETS HAS PUT THE DREAM AT GREAT RISK
Washington, DC, January 25, 2007
A new study commissioned by MetLife reveals that the American dream is still alive yet the erosion of corporate benefit programs and social safety nets has put pursuit and attainment of the dream at great risk. The MetLife Study of the American Dream reveals that the dream is being propped up by American optimism; while a majority (66%) of Americans feel they have yet to achieve the dream, they remain optimistic about the future and feel it’s still possible to achieve the American dream in their lifetime (67%). The study, unveiled today at a National Press Club briefing hosted by MetLife, a leading insurance and financial services company, reveals that working Americans are deeply engaged in what can be characterized as a "chase" of the dream.
This chase is occurring in an environment where financial burdens are shifting to individuals, and away from the government and employers. Today, Americans are clearly feeling the impact of these increased financial burdens -- the debate about the future viability of government programs such as Social Security and Medicare, declining pensions and the growing affordability crisis -- and they are showing signs of financial stress.
"The financial burden shift is having profound implications on how Americans define and approach the American dream," said Rob Henrikson, chairman, president and CEO of MetLife, Inc. "Where previously the American dream was defined as a combination of homeownership, a happy family life, and financial security stemming from a stable career, the defining theme now is almost a singular desire for financial security."
"With all the forces going against them, the affordability crisis, the bar continually rising and the feeling that the deck is stacked, Americans still want to believe in the dream," added Henrikson.
According to Kevin Phillips, strategic advisor to President Nixon and author of two recent New York Times bestsellers, American Dynasty and Wealth and Democracy, who spoke at the National Press Club event, "The increasing burdens being felt combined with the redefined American dream begin to explain why the traditional macroeconomic indicators –- GDP growth, the unemployment rate, and household income –- no longer strongly correlate with the public’s perception of the economy, or even their personal situation."
The Burden Has Shifted
"Across generations, an overwhelming majority of Americans feel future generations will feel more of a financial burden than they are experiencing now," stated Beth Hirschhorn, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, MetLife.
- Six in 10 working Americans feel they carry more financial burdens than their parents did, and the overwhelming majority feel this burden will continue to grow for future generations. The Silent generation (born 1933-1945), the majority of whom are already retired, see things differently: they feel they have it good compared to their parents. Given that Silents were born during the Depression and World War II era, this is perhaps not surprising.
- A majority of all generations feel there is more at risk with respect to their financial future than in the past. This is particularly true for Baby Boomers and Generation X.
- Nearly 3 in 4 Americans (72%) - and a strong majority of each generation – don’t believe Social Security will be available in the future. Half (53%) of respondents no longer expect Medicare to be available. This suggests debate about funding these programs has registered with the general public, and there is little optimism that solutions will be found.
- Most Americans believe partisanship and recent government scandals are playing a role in the decline of public confidence, contributing to the sense that the individuals are increasingly on their own when it comes to personal financial security. And, five years after the demise of Enron, a majority of Americans continue to feel the accounting scandals have a negative impact on their stock market investing decisions.
- Working Americans are also feeling the pinch when it comes to employer-sponsored benefits such as health care and pension plans. As competitive pressures have forced companies to shift more of the cost of benefits from employer to employee, 6 in 10 employees (61%) feel the decline in company benefits is negatively impacting their ability to achieve financial security. With the leading edge Baby Boomers reaching 65 in just four years, these trends have exacerbated concerns and added further pressure to the task of providing for retirement.
"Americans work hard to take advantage of the economic opportunities that can make life better for themselves and their children. But recent policy swings have shifted economic risks toward individuals while the rewards of economic success have become fleeting for many middle-class families," Congressman Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) said. "Congress must work to ensure that our national economy provides a basic foundation of financial security, including the ability of all Americans to have lifetime income in retirement."
Materialism and a Constantly Rising Bar
The burden shift is a function of both real and psychological factors: real from the standpoint that responsibility for burdens such as health care and retirement are increasingly shifting to the individual; and psychological because contemporary society’s focus on materialism is a source of on-going, self-induced stress.
"While the shifting burdens make chasing the American dream more challenging, as a society we’re making it harder with ratcheting expectations fueling a constantly rising bar," added Hirschhorn. "We know that the American dream is practically out of reach for most Americans and that it’s running on the fumes of optimism. So, in order to reconcile or rationalize how hard it is to achieve the dream with Americans’ desire to hold on to this American ideal, individuals have redefined the dream. It's no longer a destination, it's a never-ending pursuit."
- Younger Americans –- Generation Y (born 1977-1994*), in particular -- feel the pressure to buy more and better material possessions.
- A strong majority (66%) of working Americans also feel the bar is constantly rising when it comes to the basic necessities of life; items that were previously considered luxuries have now become necessities, including Internet access at home, a cell phone and cable television.
- Despite this, when asked about their own situation, more than two-thirds of all Americans say they would be satisfied with having enough money to meet their basic needs, rather than wanting to be rich.
- Surprisingly, 53% have had to change jobs (or may need to change jobs in the future) to maintain an income to meet their basic needs and 69% say that if they earned more money they would save most of the additional income rather than spend it.
A Level Playing Field?
The study confirms the traditional American values of optimism, faith and work are still very much present, although these beliefs are being challenged by a growing sense that the economic deck is stacked against them.
- Americans are split on whether or not external factors beyond their control determine whether or not they achieve the American dream and six in 10 believe that the rich have an unfair advantage.
- However, most plan to rely on their work ethic and not luck in order to achieve the American dream. And while it isn’t easy, most believe they can achieve the dream if they work hard. Generations X and Y are particularly optimistic they can achieve the dream through their own hard work.
- However, an underlying conflict exists. Only half say their hard work actually pays off, and no matter how hard they try, they can’t get ahead. An overwhelming majority of those surveyed (86%) feel Americans are working harder than ever just to get by. This is consistent with prior MetLife research indicating that more Americans are living paycheck to paycheck than ever before.
- Baby Boomers, for example, are showing signs of real stress. They’re only slightly more likely than Generation X and half as likely as members of the Silent generation to feel they have achieved the American dream, suggesting perhaps a majority will never "get there." With retirement looming, Boomers are the most concerned about the increasing burden shift to the individual. And, a majority (57%) believes external factors they don’t control determine whether or not they’ll achieve the dream – the only generation to feel this way.
"Public policymakers, the private sector and the American public have a tremendous window of opportunity to come together to try to get the American dream back on track," added Henrikson. "Our society must keep pursuit and achievement of the dream, which is so embedded in American culture, alive and well for future generations."
From November 20-30, 2006, Strategy First Partners and Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates conducted 1,500 online surveys in the United States among the general population, including the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y. To download a copy of MetLife’s American Dream study, visit metlife.com/AmericanDream.
MetLife is a subsidiary of MetLife, Inc. (NYSE: MET), a leading provider of insurance and financial services with operations throughout the United States and the Latin America, Europe and Asia Pacific regions. Through its domestic and international subsidiaries and affiliates, MetLife, Inc. reaches more than 70 million customers around the world and MetLife is the largest life insurer in the United States (based on life insurance in-force). The MetLife companies offer life insurance, annuities, auto and home insurance, retail banking and other financial services to individuals, as well as group insurance, reinsurance and retirement & savings products and services to corporations and other institutions. For more information, please visit www.metlife.com.
*Only those 19 and older in the Generation Y cohort were interviewed for the study.