16 October 2007

Americans - Can't Get No Satisfaction

Americans aren't satisfied. MSNBC's Bob Sullivan reports that Life is Harder Now. The folks from Gallup report that "just 28% of Americans say they are satisfied, while 71% say they are dissatisfied." At least part of the problem may be that we've entered into a new age in which it takes even more to feel safe.

Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard professor most often cited in connection with bankruptcy, debunks the common notion that Americans are buying their way into debt by spending too much on lattes and designer jeans. Housing, education, and childcare (now a necessity in a world of dual-incomes) leave households with less money even though they're making more (because of those dual-incomes).

Gallup reports, "The current 28% satisfaction level is very low by historical standards. Since Gallup first asked this question in 1979, the average percentage of Americans saying they are satisfied with conditions in the country has been 43%, with a low of 12% in July 1979 and a high of 71% in February 1999." This is remarkable - near the end of Clinton's presidency, 71% of Americans were satisfied. Today, 71% of Americans are dissatisfied. The wonder is not that the Republicans are concerned about the 2008 election. The wonder is that they have any hope at all.

Nearly 70% of the dissatisfaction is attributable to economic and political issues. Of the reasons given for dissatisfaction, the top ones are as follows:

2007 Sep 24-27 %

War in Iraq not going well 23
Economy is doing poorly 20
Healthcare issues 13
Congress not doing anything 9
Government has wrong priorities 8
Bush is doing a poor job 8
High gas prices 6

I also think that one other reason is worth mentioning. About 20 years ago, 80% of pensions were designed for fixed payouts. Work at GM for 25 years and you'll retire with a monthly income of $2,800. In this world, people knew exactly what they had to do and how much to budget. Today, about 80% of retirement plans are fixed contribution, not fixed payouts. You put in 10% of your salary each month and we'll match that with 50%. Depending on your returns, you could have somewhere between $25,000 and $25 million when you retire. Americans are taking on more risk for their own retirement. It is not just that differences in incomes will be even more extreme - now those differences will be exacerbated, rather than mitigated, by retirement plans. Even people with more money are not sure it’s enough.

My father gets a pension from the state of California and knows exactly how much money he'll get every month until he dies - whether he dies tomorrow or in 2029 at the age of 100. By contrast, the majority of my retirement will be funded from 401(k) plans. I'm not sure whether my portfolio will go up 13% this year (as it had by about June) or down by 2% (as it had by mid-summer) or back up by 17% (as it was again just last week). I'm at the point in my life when I can see three years of savings wiped out in one bad week on Wall Street. My dad knew exactly what to do to fund his retirement - he could calculate payouts from a formula. I don't really know how much to save or whether to feel optimistic or pessimistic about my retirement future (I've felt both, just within the last couple of months).

All this translates into more uncertainty and more dissatisfaction. Despite low unemployment and inflation rates - a combination sure to bring smiles to economists' faces - people are unhappy with the economy. Globalization is creating more opportunity but it is creating more risk - and to date, companies and the government have done little to mitigate that risk. Combined with Iraq's drain on our finances and reputation and our government's ineffectual dealing with this and other issues, it's no wonder that dissatisfaction stays pegged so high.


David said...

It's a complex world isn't it and 71% resist that complexity and want simple answers; $5000 at birth, free health care, government-matching 401Ks (that are guaranteed to succeed), wealth redistribution so poor people don't have to work harder, etc. Then there's the madmen ruling countries and trying to build nuclear bombs to use on Israel and the US and peaceniks saying that they're not mad and the nuclear power is for peace, members of our congress calling our own president Hitler, people hating the war and democrats promising to stay in it and get out at the same time. what to believe, who to believe... it just is all too too much and public opinion is exactly where it's been targeted to be. The next move, the 2008 elections. My plan is to "Restore Gore" and make that his slogan. Then he can work not just for peace, but for green peace. Instead of a chicken in evey pot he can promise a hybrid in every garage. We'll get back to the 12% confidence level, just you wait.

Ron Davison said...

I don't buy that 71-28=43% of Americans are suddenly unable to face complexity. (Although, that could be a Toffler-like title - complexity shock!) I think it's legitimate disgust.