Major survey by Burson-Marsteller and Penn Schoen Berland (PSB) reveals huge gap between Americans’ personal and national outlooks; findings could have major implications for 2016

NEW YORK, July 1, 2015 – On the eve of Independence Day, the American people are overwhelmingly optimistic about their own personal lives and ability to live the “American Dream,” even as three-fourths are worried the Dream is suffering overall, according to a 2015 The Atlantic/Aspen Institute survey conducted by Burson-Marsteller and Penn Schoen Berland (PSB), and based on a quantitative online survey in the U.S. among 1,988 General Population and 513 Broad Elites.

While 72 percent of Americans say they are currently living the American Dream or believe they can in their lifetime, 69 percent believe that obstacles to realizing the Dream are “more severe today than ever,” and 64 percent say that overall the nation is on the wrong track.

“This year’s survey shows that Americans believe they themselves can achieve the American Dream, even as they harbor serious doubts about whether others or their own children will have the same opportunity,” said Donald A. Baer, Worldwide Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Burson-Marsteller. “As America enters its next presidential campaign, these findings provide significant insights into our national self-perception.”

Despite their pessimism about the nation, respondents expressed strong personal optimism, with 85 percent satisfied with their lives, 86 percent optimistic about the future, 72 percent happy in their jobs, and 67 percent secure about their personal financial situation. Nearly 7 in 10 respondents describe themselves as “middle class.”

“In focusing on our nation’s hurdles, most of the 2016 candidates have been accurately reading voters’ societal pessimism,” said Mark Penn, Executive Vice President and Chief Insights Officer at Microsoft. “But this survey reveals the potential to tap into voters’ personal optimism—and there could be a valuable opening here to consolidate the nation around a shared sense of hope.”

Other key findings from the survey include:

  • Americans ages 51-64 are feeling more negative than any other age group. Only 63 percent of that group thinks they are living the dream or still will, compared to at least 73 percent for every other age group.
  • For all their talk about wanting to do good, Millennials may just be another “Me Generation.” Respondents 30 and under were the only age group to name “pays a lot of money” as the top element of their dream job.
  • The definition of the American Dream itself is shifting. While past hallmarks of the Dream were a white picket fence and a couple of children, today’s respondents prioritize flexibility and economic security. While 41 percent of respondents named “living comfortably” as the most important ingredient of obtaining the Dream, only 14 percent named “having kids.”
  • Decline of work ethic is seen as the single largest barrier to obtaining the American Dream, yet Democrats and Republicans disagree on its causes and remedies. While Republicans tend to blame big government, as well as values-based barriers like a declining work ethic and a slump in moral standards, Democrats blame a lack of economic opportunity and argue for expanding access to free healthcare and improving access to quality education in poor communities.

The survey findings were released today at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is convened by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic in Aspen, Colorado. The results were delivered in a special presentation by Baer, Penn, The Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief James Bennet, and Aspen Institute Executive Vice President Elliot Gerson. The 2015 survey marks the seventh consecutive year that Burson-Marsteller and PSB have conducted an exclusive poll for the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Visit for an analysis of the results by Baer and Penn (here) and find the complete summary findings via Burson-Marsteller (here).

More in-depth results:

The State of the American Dream

The good news is not only are Americans saying they are living the American Dream, they are also satisfied with their lives (85 percent) and optimistic about the future (86 percent). When broken out by race:

  • More than 80 percent of African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos say they are either living the dream or believe they can.
  • Only 51 percent of White Americans say they are living the American Dream or believe they still can (17 percent).
  • Americans ages 51-64, especially White Americans of that age, are feeling more negative than any other age group.

So while a majority of Americans believe they are living the American Dream, 69 percent think the obstacles to realizing the dream are more significant today than ever before. The nation is split on whether the American Dream is attainable by most Americans (51 percent) or only a few (49 percent).

The study reveals that perceptions among Americans about the barriers to achieving the American Dream include:

  • Decline of work ethic – 22 percent
  • Decline of values/moral standards – 20 percent
  • Rules favoring the wealthy – 19 percent
  • Lack of economic opportunity – 18 percent
  • Economic inequality – 17 percent
  • Big government – 17 percent
  • Decline of middle class – 17 percent

However, Americans do believe you can overcome these barriers to the American Dream. More than 6 in 10 Americans think the American Dream can best be accomplished with hard work, compared to only 28 percent who say “circumstances of birth” and 11 percent who say “luck.” And Americans remain comfortable with the idea that outcomes do not have to be spread equally and that the American Dream will play out differently for different people. Nearly two-thirds agree with the statement that “As long as I am able to provide the life I want for myself and my family, it doesn’t matter if others are substantially wealthier than [I]” – compared to only 36 percent who say, “The concentration of wealth and privilege within the top one percent of American society is a problem.”

What is The American Dream?

If in the past the traditional hallmarks of the American Dream were a white picket fence and a couple of children playing in the backyard, now 1 in 4 respondents names “owning a nice home” as the most important ingredient of the American Dream, and only 14 percent name “having kids.” Instead, respondents prioritize personal comfort and security:

  • “Living comfortably” (41 percent)
  • “Achieving financial security” (37 percent)
  • “Being debt-free” (36 percent)
  • “Providing a comfortable quality of life for your family” (35 percent)

The “Me Generation”

Millennials (Americans under 30) are particularly driving this trend of greater focus on personal comfort and satisfaction. When asked to identify the most important elements of their own American Dream, 32 percent of them named “pursuing happiness,” compared to only 23 percent of Gen Y (aged 31-50), 18 percent of Boomers (aged 51-64) and 15 percent of those 65+. Also, only 14 percent of them ranked “helping others” as compared to 19 percent of Boomers and 22 percent of respondents 65+. And when asked to identify the key ingredients of their dream job, 46 percent of Americans under 30 responded “pays a lot of money.”

About this Study
Penn Schoen Berland (PSB), working with Burson-Marsteller, conducted a quantitative online survey in the US among 1,988 General Population and 513 Broad Elites from June 8–19, 2015. The overall margin of error is +/-1.75% General Population and +/-3.58% for Broad Elites. The data presented in this study are reflective of U.S. Census Bureau demographic statistics in terms of gender, age, ethnicity, income, education, and region.

About Burson-Marsteller
Burson-Marsteller, established in 1953, is a leading global public relations and communications firm. It provides clients with strategic thinking and program execution across a full range of public relations, public affairs, reputation and crisis management, advertising and digital strategies. The firm’s seamless worldwide network consists of 73 offices and 84 affiliate offices, together operating in 110 countries across six continents. Burson-Marsteller is a unit of WPP, the world’s leading communications services network. For more information, please visit

About Penn Schoen Berland
Penn Schoen Berland (PSB), a unit of WPP, is a global research-based consultancy that specializes in messaging and communications strategy for blue-chip political, corporate, and entertainment clients. PSB has over 30 years of experience in leveraging unique insights about consumer opinion to provide clients with a competitive advantage – what it calls Winning Knowledge. PSB executes polling and message testing services for Fortune 100 companies and has helped elect more than 30 presidents and prime ministers around the world. For more information, please visit