Americans imagine the future of education and everything else

What do Americans think about when they imagine the future?  What do they anticipate for education in particular?

Pew Research recently polled thousands of people in the United States.  The questions covered a lot of ground, and the results are quite rich.

Pew Research Center logoFirst I’ll draw out the bits concerning education, then identify some other findings that are germane to the future as a whole while also having implications for colleges and universities.

One caveat.  The report seems to switch between asking people what they thought was likely to happen, and what they wanted to occur.  The former is more clearly futurist in orientation, while the latter doesn’t always look ahead.


Americans are generally pretty positive about the impact education will have on the nation’s future.  “[R]oughly three-quarters say… public K-12 schools (77%) and colleges and universities (74%) [have a very or somewhat positive impact in solving the nation’s problems]…”  In addition, we’re even more bullish on a related field, to which education contributes a great deeal: “87% say science and technology will have a very or somewhat positive impact in solving the nation’s problems.”

Linked to those beliefs is a conviction that the federal government should spend more on education, although that breaks clearly by party. 36% of Republicans and 66% of Democrats thought that  “[i]ncreased spending on education should be a top federal government priority.”  In fact, educators may feel relieved to know that increased federal support for education is the second highest priority all Americans can agree on:

(Scroll down for the health care bit)

The partisan divide on education is quite strong: “Some 87% of Democrats say colleges and universities will have a positive impact (either very or somewhat) in terms of helping to solve the country’s problems; only 56% of Republicans say the same. ”

Why do Americans have such a generally fond view of education, looking forward? Because they see job skilling happening there, and not elsewhere.  “Most adults say the primary responsibility for providing workers with the necessary skills and training resides with the education system and individuals themselves rather than with government or employers.”

Meanwhile, in terms of research, only “(34%) say increasing spending on scientific research should be a top priority. ”  Again, more Democrats than Republicans thought so.

On the K-12 side, there seems to be a significant amount of general concern:

Roughly equal shares of Democrats (38%) and Republicans (41%) say they are very worried about the ability of public schools in the future to provide a good education… only about four-in-ten Americans (38%) say the public education system will improve over the next 30 years, while 52% say it will get worse.

Everything else

Overall, we look ahead to the future with more pessimism than optimism, but it varies by race:


The world: Americans have a generally negative outlook on the future of the environment. “About six-in-ten (59%) say the condition of the environment will be worse than it is now by the year 2050, 16% say it will be better and 25% say it will stay about the same”

Automation: We seem to think automation’s coming, but we’re not that happy about it.

Most Americans agree that the workplaces of the future will be heavily automated. About eight-in-ten (82%) predict that robots and computers will do much of the work currently done by humans – a possibility that many adults with less education view with suspicion, if not outright dread.

Interesting breakdown on those views:

Among those who say robots and computers will do much of the work currently done by humans, about eight-in-ten of those with a high school diploma or less education say this would be a bad thing for the country (39% say it would be very bad; 39% say it would be somewhat bad). Those with a bachelor’s degree or more education are less fearful: Roughly six-in-ten say an automated workplace would be very (13%) or somewhat bad (45%).

We also think automation will make us more unequal: “Roughly three-quarters of adults (76%) say inequality between the rich and the poor will increase if robots and computers perform most of the jobs currently being done by humans.”

Geopolitics: most of the Pew political and economic questions concern domestic issues, but there is a global aspect.  “[S]ix-in-ten adults predict that that the U.S. will be less important in the world in 2050. While most key demographic groups share this view, it is more widely held by whites and those with more education…”

One view about balance of power issues is emerging: “About half of all adults (53%) expect that China definitely or probably will overtake the United States as the world’s main superpower in the next 30 years.”

Meanwhile, 60% think another 9-11 attack, or worse, will happen.

Domestic politics: Americans are very polarized in their responses to many of these questions.

Economics: This seems to be the source of some additional American pessimism.

More than four-in-ten Americans (44%) predict that the average family’s standard of living will get worse rather than better over the next 30 years. That’s roughly double the share (20%) who expect families to fare better financially in the future than they do today; 35% predict no real change.

When it comes to prospects for children, half of the public says children will have a worse standard of living in 30 years than they do today, while 42% predict that they will be better off.

We’re split on job security, but few think it’ll get better: “About half (49%) say workers will have less job security, and 36% say jobs will be about as secure as they are now.”

In terms of inequality, we follow Piketty.  “About three-quarters of all Americans (73%) expect the gap between the rich and the poor to grow over the next 30 years, a view shared by large majorities across major demographic and political groups.”

We’re also sanguine about one particular economic challenge: “two-thirds of the public say [a major worldwide energy crisis] will definitely (21%) or probably (46%) occur in the next 30 years.”

Demographics: aging – we tend to be unhappy about the nation’s population aging.

One reason for that attitude may be our general sense that people are decreasingly ready to retire, financially:

About seven-in-ten Americans (72%) expect older adults will be less prepared financially for retirement in 2050 than they are today. An even larger share (83%) predict that most people will have to work into their 70s in order to afford to retire. And the public’s forecast for the future of the Social Security system is decidedly grim.

One side effect of that sentiment is that we generally expect the retirement age to rise:

a large majority of adults think that, in 30 years, most Americans will work into their 70s in order to have enough resources to retire. About a third of adults (34%) say this will definitely happen, and an additional 50% say this will probably happen. Relatively few think adults will probably not have to work longer to retire (13%), while 3% say they definitely won’t.

Demographics: race – looking towards the time when America becomes a majority-minority nation (circa 2050), we are all over the map:

When asked about the impact this change will have on the country, about a third of adults say this will be either very (17%) or somewhat (18%) good, about a quarter say it will be very (15%) or somewhat (8%) bad, and 42% say this change will be neither good nor bad.

Asked about interracial relations, Americans show a similar opinion spread:

A slight majority of whites (54%) predict that race relations will improve in the next 30 years, while 39% say they will worsen. Blacks split down the middle: 43% predict better relations between the races and the same percentage predict they will be worse. Hispanics also split roughly equally, with 45% expecting improved relations and 42% saying they will get worse.

Gender: there weren’t many gender-related questions in the survey, but one stood out.  “Nearly nine-in-ten (87%) predict that a woman will be elected U.S. president by 2050.”

Health care: this issue loomed large in Pew’s survey.  It seems like a majority of Americans want improvements here:  “providing high-quality, affordable health care to all Americans stands out as the most popular policy prescription. Roughly two-thirds (68%) say this should be a top priority for government in the future.”  Up above you can see how health care led all other issues.

Religion: Americans are divided about where we see the nation’s religiosity headed.

Last thoughts

There are some interesting contradictions in these results.  For example, we are fond of technology, but dread automation.  Elsewhere in the survey Americans express a very low opinion of the government, but also want it to take on a larger role in American society.

Americans expect more of education and also want it to receive more public support.  This might be good news for public universities, if it indicates political backing for increasing state funding.

The attitudes revealed in this report give further evidence for the utility of campuses expanding their allied health curricula.  There’s a nice constellation of seeing health care as the leading national issue, support for technology, insisting on education providing workforce skills, and more support for public higher ed.

I’m curious about the potential link between environment degradation (which we expect), technology (which we love), and education (which we’re fond of). Is there an incipient groundswell of support for academic work on geoengineering?

Overall, a long, rich report.  Well worth the read.

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