As recession fears loom, middle-class anxiety about the American Dream grows

Women and families with children express greatest concerns, according to new data from CUNA Mutual Group

MADISON, WI (July 16, 2019) — Middle-class Americans are less optimistic about their ability to achieve upward mobility than they were six months ago, according to new data from CUNA Mutual Group, the leading provider of lending, insurance, investment, and financial technology solutions for credit unions.

When CUNA Mutual Group first polled the middle class in fall 2018, survey respondents gave themselves a “B minus” grade when asked to evaluate their prospects for achieving the “American Dream.” Amid increasingly uncertain economic conditions, however, that grade has dropped to a “C”.

A potential driver of this anxiety is fear the other shoe will drop after several years of strong economic growth, with close to 50 percent of respondents expressing worry the U.S. will enter a recession in the next year.

However, when thinking about their personal economic position, the majority of respondents feel relatively stable, with 61 percent saying they are somewhat to very confident, and 88 percent saying they feel their job is somewhat or very secure over the next year. That said, the middle class could be doing better – of the respondents who say they are confident in their personal economic position, two-thirds are only “somewhat” confident, meaning they can comfortably pay their bills, but want to save more in the long run.

“The middle class is mired in uncertainty. We’re seeing stagnating job growth, limited wage growth and increasing market volatility attributable to headwinds from tariffs and unfinished trade negotiations,” said Steve Rick, chief economist, CUNA Mutual Group. “This should be a wake-up call to families to start shoring up their finances now, whether that takes the form of cutting spending, reassessing their savings to avoid having to cut into their retirement to stay afloat, or even refinancing a mortgage if that’ll put them in a better position. If there’s one thing 2008 taught us, it’s that you can’t afford to be caught on your heels if a recession hits.”

On the positive side, survey respondents are aware of their economic vulnerabilities. In the event of a recession, they say they would decrease discretionary spending (53 percent) and make lifestyle changes (52 percent).

Are Women More Sensitive to a Potential Downturn?

Overall, female respondents appear to be more pessimistic when it comes to the current economy. Specifically:

  • Women are less bullish about their personal economic situation.
    Only 54 percent say they feel somewhat or very confident about their economic position, versus 68 percent of men
    Eighteen percent say they don’t feel very confident about their economic position, compared to 11 percent of men
  • Women are significantly less likely to feel their employment is secure, with 43 percent saying their job feels very stable, versus 51 percent of men
  • Female respondents are more wary of a recession, with 51 percent saying they are somewhat or very concerned, compared to 48 percent of men

More Dependents, More Problems

Women aren’t the only respondents with a heightened sense of uncertainty, with the survey finding more anxiety among parents than their child-free counterparts. People with children are more concerned the U.S. will enter a recession in the coming year compared to those without children (54 percent versus 47 percent).

Parents are also willing to be more aggressive about steps they would take to maintain stability in a recession. Most notably, they are almost twice as likely as those without children to reduce their retirement savings contributions.

Actions Respondents Would Take in the Event of a Recession

Respondents With Children

Respondents Without Children

Make lifestyle changes



Decrease credit card payments



Reduce retirement contributions




“The middle class may feel uncertain, but the future isn’t bleak for them,” concluded Rick. “They have long been the backbone of the American economy and have shown remarkable resilience in the face of some real challenges. The key is using your current stability to plan for the future. Think of it as piloting a plane. You don’t wait until you’re flying through a storm to act; you plan, train and assess your flight path long before you ever leave the ground. Proactivity mitigates risk.”

These findings are from a CUNA Mutual Group survey assessing 1,288 U.S. adults ages 18 or older and making an annual income of $35,000 to less than $100,000. The survey was fielded in May 2019.

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Rachel Strauch-Nelson


Barclay Pollak

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