COVID-19. The vaccine. The Delta variant. And now the Omicron variant. The return from remote work (or not). The return from remote schooling (or not). The Great Resignation. The year 2021 has been unlike any other, challenging the resilience of American workers and their families in extraordinary ways.
What might 2022 bring?
To find out, we surveyed a cross section of 5,000 Americans in the fall of 2021. Our goal: to take a pulse check on the current and future state of economic opportunity in the United States and to learn more about the challenges its workers face.
Below we highlight five key insights from the survey. We hope they help spur meaningful reflection and conversation among public-, private-, and social-sector leaders about the state of sustainable, inclusive growth in America—and the path ahead for making that growth a reality for everyone.
Americans are marginally more optimistic about their access to economic opportunity than they were in March. But the slight uptick masks a broader ambivalence.
Many Americans remain in a state of economic precarity. Only 48 percent of the respondents (down from 50 percent in March) said that they could cover more than two months of expenses if they lost their jobs. The challenge increases as the level of education falls: only 38 percent of respondents without college degrees report that they could cover more than two months of expenses if they lost their jobs.
Groups reporting that their position has worsened since our March survey include women, people living in rural areas, and caregivers with a child or children at home.
Although respondents reported many barriers to their economic well-being, access to healthcare and/or health insurance were far and away the most pressing. Moreover, healthcare-related barriers were slightly more likely to be included among respondents’ top three in this survey than they were in March.
Americans with children at home experience these barriers most acutely. Such respondents were more likely than average to say that each barrier in the chart was a top three barrier to their well-being.
Forty-nine percent of the respondents said that most Americans have opportunities to find good jobs, up seven percentage points from March. This rise in optimism could stem from the ongoing economic recovery and from the so-called Great Attrition, which has increased the bargaining power of workers.
Nonetheless, unemployed Americans cited the limited availability of jobs as a barrier to employment, suggesting that some workers are avoiding widely available entry-level jobs to search for others, perhaps with more pay or flexibility. Supporting that hypothesis: the second-most-cited barrier to employment was the need for more skills and education.
Some barriers affected particular groups: the need to take care of family was the top pick of caregivers, for example, while “My identity (age, race, gender, sexuality)” was the top pick for workers over age 55.
When jobless respondents were asked about the causes of their unemployment, their answers collectively highlighted the challenges the pandemic has posed for lives and livelihoods everywhere. Thirty percent of the respondents (up from 27 percent in March) cited physical health as a cause, and 15 percent (up from 13 percent) cited mental health. Respondents who say they’ve stopped looking for work were the most likely to cite physical or mental health as a cause of their joblessness.
A third explanation for unemployment—the need to take care of family—was cited by 12 percent of the respondents. Yet that percentage masked considerable differences: those with children at home were 2.4 times more likely to cite taking care of family as a reason for unemployment. Asian Americans were three times more likely to cite taking care of family than respondents of other races.
As we found in the inaugural American Opportunity Survey, in March, this new survey reminds us of the substantial—and stubbornly persistent—barriers preventing many Americans from having a more equitable, prosperous future. In particular, the lack of access to healthcare, mental-health care, and (for parents and caregivers) to childcare represent thorny challenges that leaders in all sectors may wish to prioritize.
At the same time, the pulse-check nature of the survey points to intriguing, real-time developments for workers as America moves forward into 2022. Here are some of the possibilities we’ll be watching most closely:
- Will the divergence we observed between respondents’ positive-trending views of the near term, and their more negative-trending views of the longer term, continue?
- Will inflation continue into 2022? If so, what effect might it have on the perceived and real incomes of American workers?
- What effect will the continued normalization of US fiscal policy (including the end of stimulus payments) have on workers’ perception of their economic opportunity and well-being?
- Will the labor market return to something approximating a historical normal, or will the current—and unprecedented—mismatch between the supply of and demand for labor continue?
- What efforts can the private, public, and social sectors undertake to help provide the training and skills that workers say they need to find better jobs?