Jul 31, 2013

From the Archives

How the Last Decade Changed American Life

Long before iPhones, the nation’s first black president, or even before Wikipedia had a domain name, American life was just turning the corner into another century. This was before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, health care reform, the housing bubble and its subsequent crash, and, the onset of the Recession. Yet over a decade later, all of these national events and more have changed—and continue to change—the cultural landscape of American life.

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More than headlines, these events have had an effect on the inner lives of Americans—how we perceive ourselves. The Recession in particular has influenced Americans on a personal level. It was an economic fallout, but its consequences have reverberated through where Americans live, where they work, what they believe, how they spend their time and relate to friends and family. What’s more, the American Dream and its ideals of freedom, opportunity and the rise into prosperity also took a hit in the economic crash. All of this has changed the way Americans see themselves, their challenges, their opportunities and their future.

Barna Group’s most recent survey on the topic compares Americans’ descriptions of themselves from the early 2000s until now, illuminating how much American life has changed in the past decade, and how Americans see themselves moving forward into the future.

How Americans See Themselves—Then and Now
It has been noted that the new default answer to the standard, “How are you?” is no longer, “Good,” but, “Busy.” Such busyness is often perceived as “the new normal” of the 21st century. Yet Americans self-describe as being less busy than they were a decade ago—only one-third of Americans today describe themselves as busy compared to about half the population who said so 10 years ago.

But what about overall happiness? Busy or not, do Americans describe themselves as happy? Eight out of 10 Americans today, in fact, would say yes. This is a slight dip from American life 10 years ago, when nine out of 10 Americans self-identified as happy. However, a bright spot remains: More Americans describe themselves as happy today (82%) than any other self-description. The happiest of all? The young (Millennials, at 92%), the financially well-off (those earning over $60,000 annually, at 88%) and practicing Catholics (at 93%).

One of the greatest self-perception changes over the past decade is in how Americans see themselves in relation to others. For all the technological advances in the past decade, the desire for human connectedness remains. Ten years ago, slightly over one out of 10 Americans self-identified as lonely. Today, that number has doubled—a paradoxical reality in the full swing of the social media age.

But while loneliness among Americans has risen, the desire to find one’s place among a few good friends has likewise increased—from 31% a decade ago to 37% today. Leading this charge today in finding friendship are Millennials (47%), Hispanics (47%) and never-married single adults (44%)—all higher than the national average.

Top 5 Groups Who Report Being in Debt
The American Dream has long been a staple of American national identity, but this ideal comes with a price tag. And for some, that price is unaffordable, leading Americans into debt. In the aftermath of the economic crisis in 2008, of course, debt became even harder for many Americans to fight due to rising costs and increasing unemployment.

About one out of six Americans today (16%) consider themselves to be in “serious financial debt.” In other words, 48 million Americans—out of approximately 238 million American adults today—say they are carrying major debt. This is a slight increase from 10 years ago, when 13% of Americans indicated the same.

The numbers reveal a correlation between faith and perception of personal finance. The population segment who most commonly reports being in serious debt are those with a non-Christian faith (30%). In contrast, 18% of all Protestants say the same. Alternately, half of all Protestants in America describe themselves as financially comfortable. This number increases when it comes to Catholics—65% of whom describe themselves as financially comfortable.

Marital status also plays a role in financial debt and comfort. Nearly one-quarter of Americans who have ever divorced say they are in serious debt, compared to the national average of one-sixth of seriously indebted Americans. Married adults (12%), polishing their status as a more economically stable household unit, are the least likely to report carrying heavy debt. On the opposite end of the spectrum, six out of 10 married adults describe themselves as financially comfortable, while less than four single (36%) or ever-divorced adults (35%) say the same.

Contrary to popular perception, Millennials are some of the least likely population groups to be carrying serious debt. For all the ways Millennials are commonly critiqued, perhaps their financial habits are better than one might think. Or their optimism makes them less susceptible to doubting their financial viability. Either way, only one out of 10 Millennials describe themselves as weighed down by major debt.

Americans’ Outlook on the Future
So with the changing social and economic realities at hand today, what do Americans think about the future? Where do they see themselves? As with most challenges and opportunities, the reactions are mixed. Overall, 57% of all Americans are committed to getting ahead in the future. But they are also concerned about what kind of moral lives they will find there—a perception held by more than two-thirds of Americans (68%).

Among the most optimistic are Hispanics, three out of four of whom say they are committed to getting ahead in the future. This is a striking sentiment coming from the nation’s fastest growing population demographic. Likewise, the same proportion of African Americans describe themselves as committed to getting ahead. And finally, the last group to make the top three population segments committed to getting ahead are the Millennials (70%)—revealing a fresh sense of resolve from a generation that was just coming of age and entering the workforce as the Recession hit in full force.

Yet concern for the future remains a reality of American life, and concern about  “the moral condition of the country” has only risen since the turn of the century (77% of Americans today carry this concern, compared to 64% a decade ago). Faith is often a factor in anxiety about the future of the nation—particularly its moral future. For example, Protestants (82%) are highly likely—more than the national average—to carry concern for the days ahead. This percentage only increases when Protestants were asked about the moral future of America—95% of evangelicals describe themselves as concerned in this arena. In contrast, the population segment with the least amount of concern for America’s future are Americans of faiths other than Christianity (27%), followed closely by religious skeptics or Americans who associate with no faith (24%).

What the Research Means
David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, discusses several implications of the research:

“Overall, this research shows the mood of Americans has changed in substantial ways. Our nation’s population has settled into the “new normal” of the economy, mostly with optimism and a can-do attitude, though millions are struggling to stay afloat in terms of their perception of financial thriving. In particular, many within the nation’s non-white population continue to feel a substantial gap between reality and ideal. Their aspirations for a better life are part of what defines millions of Hispanics and blacks today.”

Such self-perceptions, Kinnaman adds, are something leaders need to pay attention to. “Self-perception is a fascinating science and should be turned into action by political, social and faith leaders,” he says. “Ideally, research should enable us to better communicate and lead our followers to a clearly defined preferable future.”

The research also highlights the fact that some household structures struggle more than others, singles and divorcees, in particular. “The simple fact is that ‘unmarried America’ perceives itself to be lonelier, more indebted and more aspirational about getting ahead in life than the married cohort of Americans,” Kinnaman says. “While marriage is not a realistic option for everyone, the nation’s continued shift away from marriage as the standard household type to one of digitally connected tribes of ‘friends’ is going to have significant impact on the psychographics of the nation in the next decade.”

He continues: “As a nation, we are embracing the digital revolution and, ironically, we are becoming a lonelier population. While there are many benefits of being participants in possibly the most relationally connected age in human history, the social media revolution has not made us feel more connected, less lonely, or replete with friends.”

“Finally, the research points to many opportunities for the Christian community—the original social network—to provide genuine responses to the needs of today’s culture,” Kinnaman concludes. “The Church, when functioning properly, can address the rising epidemic of loneliness, financial strain and indebtedness, increasing concerns about morality, among many other things. Faith communities must respond to the “fearful” realities of the future with wisdom and love. After all, Jesus teaches that we should not be anxious about tomorrow, not even the changing psychographics of Americans.’’

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About the Research

The data on which this report is based included surveys with 1,075 adults who were randomly chosen from the United States between January 17 and January 23, 2013. The maximum margin of sampling error for a sample of that size is estimated to be within plus or minus 2.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Comparable data was conducted in Barna’s OmniPoll surveys between January 2000 and April 2002. Each of these studies included interviews with 1,000 randomly selected U.S. adults. The maximum margin of sampling error for a sample of that size is estimated to be within plus or minus 3.0 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Generations: Mosaics / Millennials are a generation born between 1984 through 2002; Busters, born between 1965 and 1983; Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964; and Elders were born in 1945 or earlier.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

© Barna Group, 2013.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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