According to a new study, Americans are more unhappy today than they’ve been in the past 50 years. The study, which draws on data going back to 1972, also found that Americans are feeling lonelier and more anxious and are also less optimistic about their children’s future. (NORC at the University of Chicago)
NH: A couple of weeks ago, we reported on a JAMA study which found a 3X to 4X rise in emotional stress levels among Americans following the onset of the pandemic.
Among young adults, the rise was 6X to 7X. (See "Distress Levels Skyrocket During Pandemic.") The JAMA researchers used data gathered in rotating questionnaires by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. NORC also helps carry out the long-running General Social Survey (GSS).
NORC is now releasing its own report, which uses GSS data going back to 1972 to provide some long-term perspective on the recent mood shift. The most recent responses were gathered on May 21-29, 2020.
Here's the topline summary. The pandemic has triggered an unprecedented drop in the share of Americans feeling "very happy" and an unprecedented climb in the share feeling "not too happy." There has been a similar jump in the share who feel lonely--either "lacking companionship" or feeling "isolated" or "left out." And a jump in the share who feel anxious, depressed, or irritable.
Not surprisingly, those who live in COVID-19 hotspots are reporting the biggest rise in unhappiness and feelings of social isolation.
The NORC researchers specifically compared America's current mood with their reactions to 9/11 and JFK's assassination. Just after those earlier tragedies, Americans were more likely to report that they cried or that they felt nervous or tense or dazed.
But after the pandemic hit, Americans are more likely to say they feel tired, irritable, or on the verge of losing their temper. Compared to 9/11, Americans today are more likely to feel bored, depressed, or lonely.
Along with shock, those earlier tragedies generated a positive and powerful "rally around the flag" wave of emotion. President LBJ (in 1964) and George W. Bush (in 2002) enjoyed massive approval-rating margins. Patriotism numbers surged.
No such wave is happening this time around.
Trump's approval boost was small and short lived--and has by now entirely disappeared. According to Gallup, a record-low share of Americans, 42%, are today "extremely proud" to be an American, down from 51% in 2017 and 92% in 2002.
The mounting gloominess about national direction encompasses more than just patriotism. Gallup also reports a sharp decline in Americans "satisfied" with the current direction of this country. According to last week's Monmouth University poll, likewise, only 21% say America is "heading in the right direction." That is down from 39% at the beginning of March and is just about back to levels last seen in 2013--after America had spent four years mired in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
It gets worse. A Wall Street Journal/NBC survey recently noted that 80% of Americans now think that America is "out of control." (We can be thankful, perhaps, that we have no historical comparison for this gloomy data point.)
Where we have demographic crosstabs, they seem to indicate that the largest declines in positive feelings about America's direction are happening among older and Republican-leaning adults.
The NORC researchers offer no similar indicator on how satisfied Americans feel about the state of their nation. But they do offer one very revealing gauge of how Americans are assessing their nation's long-term future.
The question is this: "When your children are at the age you are now, do you think their standard of living will be much better, somewhat better, about the same, somewhat worse, or much worse than yours is now?"
In 2020, the much/somewhat better share has dropped to its lowest level since 1994. And the much/somewhat worse share has risen to its highest level since 1994. The NORC data only go back to 1994, which (by most estimates) was a year of unusual gloom.
If we had comparable earlier data, we might find that 2020's response is a record going back decades further.
But here's what's interesting. If you ask Americans how they are doing financially right now, you wouldn't even know there's a recession going on. Indeed, the "satisfied" share has risen.
And the "not at all satisfied" share has declined. Further questioning shows that most Americans are relieved that their own incomes are not more affected by the huge declines they see all around them in employment and production.
Well, I guess you could say that's what $3.6 trillion in deficit spending can buy you--along with another $3.1 trillion added to the Fed's balance sheet. For that hefty price tag, you can buy a remarkable degree of protection from near-term economic pain.
But clearly all that spending is not buying Americans any satisfaction at all about the state of their own lives, the future of the country, and the long-term consequences for their kids.
And if the protection runs out before the economy picks back up, well, then we might see some mood numbers that are really scary.
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ABOUT NEIL HOWE
Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.
A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.
Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."
Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.
Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.
Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.