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Poll shows students optimistic despite money doubts

Monday, April 18, 2011 | 11:51 a.m. CDT; updated 9:25 p.m. CDT, Monday, April 18, 2011
Mark McNally works part-time at a liquor store in Edina, Minn. McNally, 23, earned a history degree from the University of Minnesota and said he doesn't think he can earn the same kind of money his parents made when they were his age.

WASHINGTON — For young people who came of age in the recession, the American dream of life getting better for each new generation feels like a myth.

A majority expect to have a harder time buying a house and saving for retirement than their parents did. More than 4 in 10 predict it will be tougher to raise a family and afford the lifestyle they want, according to an Associated Press-Viacom poll of Americans ages 18 to 24.

Only about a fourth expect things to be easier for them than the previous generation — a cherished goal of many hardworking parents.

"I just don't really see myself being able to obtain the kind of money my parents could when they were my age," said Mark McNally, 23, who earned a history degree from the University of Minnesota a year ago and now works part-time in a liquor store.

San Francisco State University nursing student Ashley Yates, 23, is confident she'll build a career in health care but expects money to be tighter in her lifetime. "Social Security may not even exist when I'm older," Yates said. "Health insurance is going up. Everything just costs more."

Sounds like a bummer, right? Yet most young adults are shrugging it off. Despite financial disappointments, they overwhelmingly say they're happy with their lives, much more so than older folks in similar surveys.

Youthful optimism — with perhaps a touch of naivete — lives on. A whopping 90 percent expect to find careers that will bring them happiness, if not wealth.

Linka Preus, who's taking a year off her career track to work in an Ithaca, N.Y., bagel bakery, figures every generation has its own struggles, and bad economies eventually improve.

"Even if it never gets better permanently, we'll adjust to whatever it is," said Preus, 22, a linguistics and cognitive science grad from Cornell University who plans to pursue her passion for science in graduate school.

McNally, the history major, said he's enjoying life as a part-time clerk in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina before he gets tied down in a research or analyst job.

"I'll be able to find one in the future, I'm sure of it," McNally said. "I'll find one or go back to school."

High unemployment has left lots of young lives in limbo. Among students who don't plan to go to work right after college, three-fourths say the limited number of open jobs in their field was important to their decision. Riding out the tough times in grad school is a popular choice for those with the means.

But for some without such options, optimism is hard to muster.

Nathan Watkins, out of work in rural Epworth, Ga., has little job experience, no car and no access to public transportation.

"I'm literally stuck and there's nothing I can do about it. At least I feel that way," said Watkins, 23, a high school graduate who lives with his mother and tries to compensate her by doing chores.

He's seeking work of any type. "Honestly, at this point, I wouldn't care. In this economy, you take what you can get."

Young people today are more pessimistic about their economic futures than young adults in a similar poll in April 2007, eight months before the recession began. And most say they cannot afford the things they want or are struggling at least a little to make their money last through each week. About half are dependent on family members for financial support.

Seventy-five percent say the economy is in poor shape, on par with older people surveyed in a recent AP-GfK poll.

And they're not just worried about themselves; 7 out of 10 fret about their parents' finances. About 20 percent saw a parent laid off during the past year and a half, according to the AP-Viacom study, conducted in partnership with Stanford University.

Money troubles are steering the course of young lives. A majority say finances were a key factor in deciding whether to continue their educations past high school and, if they did, which college to attend, and what kind of career to seek.

Lucas Ward couldn't keep up with the tuition in community college, despite working three jobs at once — at a gas station, a hotel and a restaurant in scenic and touristy Hood River, Ore.

With youthful pluck, he found opportunity elsewhere.

Ward fell into a job doing a bit of everything for a small outdoor clothing company, and the business took off. The housing collapse that busted so many baby boomers made prices suddenly affordable, so Ward bought a home. At 23, he's about to invest in a second house and is building his own clothing company.

"A lot of stuff in the news is telling everyone that they can't, that the economy is crumbling and there's no room for anyone to do anything," Ward said. "But I'm watching that being disproven every day."

The AP-Viacom telephone survey of 1,104 adults was conducted Feb. 18 through March 6 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Stanford University's participation in this project was made possible by a grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

AP writer Stacy A. Anderson, AP Polling Director Trevor Tompson, Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

How the poll was conducted

The Associated Press-Viacom Survey of Youth on Education Poll by Stanford University was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications from Feb. 18 to March 6. It is based on landline and cell phone interviews with a nationally representative random sample of 1,104 adults ages 18 to 24 . This included 253 African-Americans, 100 of which was an oversample. Interviews were conducted with 603 respondents on landline telephones and 501 on cell phones.

Stanford University's participation was made possible by a grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Digits in the phone numbers dialed were generated randomly to reach households with unlisted and listed landline and cell phone numbers.

Interviews were conducted in both English and Spanish.

As is done routinely in surveys, results were weighted, or adjusted, to ensure that responses accurately reflect the population's makeup by factors such as age, sex, education and race. In addition, the weighting took into account patterns of phone use — landline only, cell only and both types — by region.

For the African-American sample, the portion from the core survey and the oversample were weighted to reflect the African-American 18- to 24-year-old population on Hispanic ethnicity, educational attainment, region and age within sex.

No more than one time in 20 should chance variations in the sample cause the results to vary by more than plus or minus 3.5 percentage points from the answers that would be obtained if all 18 to 24 year olds in the U.S. were polled.

There are other sources of potential error in polls, including the wording and order of questions.

The questions and results are available at http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com.


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