You can barely open a newspaper these days without reading how the American Dream is dying—hobbled by the troubled economy, divisive politics, threats from abroad, or some other intractable challenge. And if you ask Americans how the nation is doing—as we did in a Penn Schoen Berland poll of about 2,000 Americans from June 8 to 19, 2015, commissioned for The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute for the 11th Aspen Ideas Festival—they will indeed say in large majorities that the American Dream is suffering (75 percent), that obstacles to realizing the Dream are “more severe today than ever” (69 percent), and that overall the nation is on the wrong track (64 percent).
But here’s what’s remarkable about all this pessimism about America: It bears very little resemblance to what people actually feel about their own lives. Seventy-two percent of respondents say they are living the American Dream or expect to—50 percent who are living it now and another 22 percent who believe they can attain it in their lifetime. Other satisfaction measures are as high or higher: 67 percent feel secure about their personal financial situation; 72 percent are happy in their jobs; 85 percent of respondents are satisfied with their lives; and 86 percent are optimistic about the future. In what is perhaps the most telling finding about the state of America’s self-perception, nearly 7 in 10 respondents describe themselves as “middle class.”