WASHINGTON — In a changing economy, millennials still believe in the American dream.
Despite growing up during the worst downturn since the Great Depression — and coming of age at a time of wage stagnation and widening income inequality — more than two-thirds of those in the nation's rising generation predict they will be more successful in their professional lives than their parents were.
Just one in five say that won't be true.
"I feel that I will be more successful than my parents in my professional life because of my level of education," says Diana Ruocco, 21, a student from Daytona Beach, Fla., who was among those surveyed. "But I think the 'American dream' has changed," she adds, because of dramatic shifts in the economy.
"Our ideas of 'success' are different," agrees Michelle Stevens, 30, of Gainesville, Fla.
The latest USA TODAY/Rock the Vote Poll of 18-to-34-year-olds explores the economic expectations and concerns of the largest generation in U.S. history, an accelerating force that is changing the way consumer goods are sold, elections are won and careers are pursued. The poll, the second in an election year series, is part of USA TODAY's One Nation initiative, a series of forums across the U.S. on the most important issues of 2016.
After the financial crash of 2008 and the economic woes that followed, adults of all ages have bemoaned the demise of the American dream, the animating belief that with hard work the next generation will have the opportunity for a better life than the previous one. But millennials still embrace that idea, and across demographic lines.
Thirty percent of whites "strongly agree" that they will be more successfully professionally than the previous generation. Optimism is even higher among African Americans (34% "strongly agree") and Hispanics (32%). Asian Americans are a bit less upbeat, at 26%.
That said, millennials believe success will require a lifetime of effort on their parts. Nearly nine out of 10 say they will need to continually develop new skills to advance their careers.
And they are surprisingly skeptical of the "sharing economy" that their generation pioneered, including the explosion of app-based services such as Uber. Just shy of half, 49%, say the "sharing economy" reflects an improvement on the American economy. Nearly a third say they don't know, a higher level of uncertainty than on other economic questions, and one in five says it's not an improvement.
"With a profession like Uber, you will be able to see more people who will be able to enter the current job market," says Gavin Hamilton, 23, a student from Fresno, Calif. "I think it'd offer more jobs in areas that we're not seeing right now."
"Your own success is completely dependent on how you want to deliver it," Stevens says, but she cautions that she sees "two different flip sides to it."
The online survey of 1,541 young adults, taken by Ispos March 3-10, has a credibility interval (akin to a margin of error) of 4.6 percentage points. The poll included an over-sample of African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans. The credibility interval for those subgroups is +/- 7.9.
By big margins, those surveyed say the economy, including jobs and the minimum wage, should be the first priority for the next president. Other issues at the top of the list relate to the economy: The second is education, college affordability and student debt. The third is health care.
Trailing far behind, at fourth, is foreign policy and terrorism.
"Immigration is important but in my view, it's education," says Melissa Roloson, 32, of Sodus, in upstate New York, who is now working in retail. Roloson supports Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential race. "I'm a college graduate but I have student loans, and I don't have a great job."
Ashley Yago, 33, a supporter of Republican Donald Trump who lives across the country in Greeley, Colo., finds herself in a similar retail job and with a similar outlook.
"I've had two grants but I'm still hung up with schools and have loans," she said in a follow-up phone interview. She tried to apply for a job as an administrative assistant in a hospital, but the hospital wouldn't give her an interview until she had completed classes she's taking for an associate's degree. "It's either you have a degree or you don't. And in this competitive world, you have to have a degree, a college education."
By more than 9-1, 86%-9%, those surveyed say most people aren't prepared for the impact of student-loan debt. Nearly as many, 83%-15%, call the American higher-education system "broken."
"They show on television that it's so easy to go to college, but it's really not," says Andres Palmer, 21, of Farmington, N.M. "It's really expensive and if you have a hard time in school and you end up failing, you end up having to pay a lot of money and so you're worse than where you started."
In the survey, millennials are eager for some help in navigating the new economy. By nearly 4-1, 71%-19%, they say the U.S. economy "needs more organizations and rules to protect workers." By an even wider margin, 85%-11%, they say Americans should be able to support themselves and their families based on a 40-hour work week.
Many say improving the education system is the key to a range of other issues.
"Education is a big problem in America that needs to be addressed if the economy's going to get better, if opportunities are going to get better," says Christopher Sturrup, 28, of Evanston, Ill.
The nation's education system is "very broken" despite efforts by a series of administrations, says Olga Figueroa, 27, of Silver Spring, Md. "If we could get some type of consistency, it could lead to lower rates of poverty, lower rates of criminal activity. I think education crosses all sectors, including climate change and a lot of different policy issues."