Opportunity from anxiety?

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An interesting survey came out last week that indicates while the American middle class is still optimistic about getting ahead, many are increasingly fearful about falling behind in terms of economic progress.

On the one hand, while such findings might bode ill for trucking in near-term freight volumes – especially if such worries generate a consumer spending slowdown – there could be a possible upside, as well, if such gnawing fiscal concerns convince middle class denizens to re-evaluate job opportunities such as driving big rigs for a living.

And lest you think the 16th quarterly Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor poll we’re about to delve into is just another data set in an increasingly crowded survey medium, consider this: no less an established economic pundit than Robert Samuelson drew some interesting conclusions from this very same poll.

The 16thiteration of the Heartland Monitor poll finds there is renewed concern about the country's economic recovery and an increase in skepticism toward major political and business institutions. Specifically, the mood of the country has worsened with only 29% of respondents believing the U.S. is headed in the "right direction," a considerable decline from a three-year high of 41% recorded in November last year, according to the survey’s results.

The landline phone-based survey of 1,000 adults aged 18 and over also discerned that public opinion is now narrowly balanced between hopes of economic improvement and fears about falling behind.

Nearly three-in-five middle class Americans (59%) say they are concerned about falling out of their economic class, while attributes Americans have historically seen as safeguards for middle class families – such as educational attainment and responsible financial planning – are now considered by many to be unrealistic or only attainable by the upper class, the Heartland poll found.

The survey also shows that there is now a sense that the term “middle class” has now been redefined to mean not falling behind, rather than upward mobility and material possessions.

On top of that, many of those polled blame decisions made by political leaders and major business institutions over the past few decades for wages falling behind living expenses, with 64% saying Congress has made things worse for the middle class, 55% blaming major financial institutions for making things worse, and 54% of Americans believe CEOs of major U.S. corporations are hurting the economy as well.

“Today, they are sounding the alarm bell that the economy is not on track for sustainable growth. More affordable college education, job creation and stability are seen as key priorities," noted Thomas Wilson (above), chairman, president and CEO of Allstate, regarding the poll’s findings.

"The blame is spread wide and far, from politicians to business leaders [as] Americans are crying out for leaders to work together to create a path to economic prosperity,” he added. “We should listen and act now."

Here are some other findings extrapolated from this survey’s responses:

  • 59% of Americans say they're concerned about falling out of their economic class over the next few years
  • A solid majority (54%) of Americans believes that being middle class today means keeping up with expenses and holding a steady job while not falling behind or taking on too much debt.
  • Just 43% think that middle class means having the opportunity for financial and professional growth, buying a home, and saving and investing for the future
  • Seen as most "out of reach" for the middle class are paying for a child's college education, retiring comfortably, and having enough money to weather a health or income emergency, with some 40% of middle class Americans believe these things are only realistic for the upper class, with 49% believing a college education is realistic for the “upper class.”
  • That being said, 50% of all Americans and 51% of the middle class consider higher education to be the most effective way to protect and earn middle-class standing

So, what do Americans prescribe to policymakers as a curative for such ills? For starters, more than half (55%) preferring lawmakers to take an approach that invests in long-term job planning and growth in favor of initiatives that temporarily alleviates day-to-day expenses (38%), with improved access to and lowering the cost of higher education ranked as the most important (38%).

The question for trucking in all of this is simple: can these concerns about upward mobility and income security be tapped to encourage folks – especially younger folks – to consider jobs in the trucking business?

That of course depends on the ability to provide decent pay and benefits, but if freight rates increase due to the expected capacity shortage later this year, that just might be a possibility.

We’ll just have to see how that plays out. 

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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