Low expectations

A new study by Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, has found that although a majority of Americans are generally upbeat about the country’s long-term outlook, most of them make gloomy forecasts when questioned about specific policy areas. Pew began its poll of 2,500 adults by asking them to think broadly about the future of America in 30 years’ time. Some 56% of them described themselves as optimistic about that prospect.

Yet that figure might simply reflect Americans’ patriotism, since Pew asked them to evaluate the country as a whole. Most struggled to identify any aspect of life that they thought would improve. A clear majority believed that public education would get worse, health care would grow less affordable and the political climate would become more divisive. Three-fifths thought that by 2050 America would probably suffer another terrorist attack as bad as 9/11. Their economic predictions were particularly gloomy. Only 20% of respondents reckoned that living standards in 2050 would be substantially higher than today. Some 73% thought that the gap between rich Americans and poor ones would get wider.

Are Americans right to be so gloomy? Steven Pinker, a psychologist, has documented how human assessments of society are skewed by negativity bias. Because headlines about bad news are more attention-grabbing, people often assume that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, even as their personal quality of life continues to improve. “Enlightenment Now”, Mr Pinker’s latest book, is an encyclopedia of the various ways in which living standards have increased in recent decades around the world, including in America.

There is little evidence yet of a stagnation in income for the median American household—which has risen by nearly 50% since 1979, after adjusting for inflation and changes in taxation and benefits. Yet there are some signs that Americans’ general quality of life is no longer rapidly improving. The spread of opioid addiction has caused life expectancy to fall for three consecutive years. Since 2014 America has slipped from 20th to 25th in the Social Progress Index, a measure of living standards that ignores economic performance. It is the only rich country to have seen its overall score decrease in that time, thanks largely to declining ratings for health care and social inequality.

The country has also seen a fall in self-reported happiness during the past decade. There is still plenty for Americans to be thankful for—but some of their fears about the future are not entirely unfounded.

This article is from our Graphic detail section.