It’s evening in America. That is the worrying news from the latest Heartland Monitor Poll, conducted quarterly and sponsored by the insurer Allstate and National Journal.
The researchers made a striking finding: The U.S. middle class, long the world’s embodiment of optimism and upward mobility, today is telling a very different story. The chief preoccupation of middle-class Americans is not the dream of getting ahead, it is the fear of falling behind.
The poll found that 59 percent of its respondents – a group of 1,000 people selected to be demographically representative of the United States as a whole – were afraid of falling out of their economic class over the next few years. Those who described themselves as lower middle class were even more scared than the overall group – 68 percent feared they could slip even lower down the economic ladder.
This wary vision of the future went hand-in-hand with a diminished idea of what it meant to belong to the middle class. More than half of the people polled – 54 percent – said that being middle class meant having a job and being able to pay your bills. Fewer than half – just 43 percent – took the more expansive view that membership in the middle class was a passport to financial and professional growth, buying a house and saving for the future.
“The key finding is that the middle class in America is more anxious than it is aspirational,” Jeremy Ruch, a senior director at the strategic communications practice of FTI Consulting and one of the people who led the polling, told me. “Some of the traditional characteristics of middle classness are not seen as realistic. They have been replaced by an anxiety about the possibility of falling out of their economic class.”