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Are American Workers More Optimistic Under Trump?

Many of the voters who put Donald Trump in office in November 2016 hoped his “outsider” status would boost job prospects and revive faltering industries. Now that we are one year into his presidency, how do American workers feel about the future of their jobs and industries?

BBC Capital commissioned pollsters SmithGeiger to survey 2,060 people across the US, asking if a year after the election they were now more or less optimistic about job prospects.

The poll revealed that nearly half of the adult population doesn’t feel any different about the future of their job compared to their views before last November’s election, with fairly equal numbers optimistic and pessimistic about their employment situation. Given a tumultuous year where the US economy flourished at the same time that Trump’s new  administration struggled to win over the American public, the stability of individual perceptions about their jobs and industries may seem unexpected.

Key economic factors like employment rates, wages and the stock market performance have had strong showings during President Trump’s first year in office. Unemployment now stands at a 17-year low rate of 4.1%, and hourly wages have risen by an average of 2.8% in the past year. Meanwhile, the S&P 500 is up 21% since the 2016 election. It’s certainly worth placing these figures in context: each of those indicators continue trends that were already in place under President Obama, where the stock market and wages steadily went up as unemployment fell.

Yet most polls tell a different story when the American public is asked about the direction of the nation as a whole. The majority gives a pessimistic response: in fact, a recent Economist/YouGov poll found 60% of Americans think the US is on the wrong track, compared to only 27% that feel America is headed in the right direction. The same poll at the end of January found 52% of Americans were pessimistic about the nation’s path, compared with 35% optimistic about the trajectory of the country. That 8 point bump in pessimism may be connected to President Trump’s disapproval ratings, which have risen by 10 points over the past year.

The disconnect between positive employment metrics and negative perceptions of our county’s future complicates expectations for how Americans evaluate prospects for their jobs and industries.

In fact, the biggest portion of Americans who don’t feel differently about the outlook for their careers since Trump’s victory may reflect the conflicting relationship between generally positive employment and economic performance and broader pessimism about the direction of the nation.

As is often the case, workers’ perceptions of their jobs and industries are affected by their personal characteristics. American men were twice as likely as their female counterparts (30% to 15%) to be more optimistic about the future of their jobs since Donald Trump’s election. The confluence of long-standing gender inequities such as a significant pay gap between women and men play a part, but significant tensions between many American women and the Trump administration could also be a factor in the low levels of optimism among women regarding their careers.

Similarly, white Americans express higher levels of optimism about the future of their careers than other racial groups. The heightened racial tensions during Trump’s first year in office and persistent wage gaps between different ethnic groups have likely contributed to that growing rate of pessimism among minority populations.

White Americans reported roughly equal percentages of feeling optimistic or pessimistic, but the trend swung more towards pessimism with other ethnic groups.

Interestingly, the most prominent swing towards pessimism exists among Asian-Americans, a group that has enjoyed fairly strong levels of economic success in recent years. The White House’s policy positions on trade and national security in relation to Asia may be exacerbating that general unease within this fast-growing cohort of Americans.

Donald Trump’s 2016 victory has been largely credited to his ability to energize rural voters with promises to restore jobs in small towns and rural areas of America, and he has commonly highlights announcements from companies that have expanded or relocated in rural regions.
However, the survey results show that rural Americans do not seem to be measurably more optimistic about the future of their jobs than urban or suburbs counterparts. That restrained optimism among rural voters may be a reflection of entrenched economic impediments in their communities. While President Trump has promised to revitalize these communities, the difficult realities of transforming their economies may be tempering optimism among rural Americans.

In contrast to many other aspects of life, age does not seem to be much of a factor in the present case of explaining people’s respective career outlooks. Variation across generations of Americans regarding the future of their jobs and industries is quite negligible. However, the survey did not include older workers (age 55 and above), and thus potential differences in this age group were not examined.

Trump was also popular among Americans with lower levels of education in his 2016 victory, winning a solid majority of voters with no more than a high school degree (and losing a majority of citizens with a university degree). The survey indicates that those less-educated Americans remain a bit more optimistic than those with a bachelors or graduate degree.

President Trump’s rhetorical focus on manufacturing and mining, which typically employ workers with lower levels of educational attainment, may explain the higher levels of optimism among this group. On the other hand, the Trump administration’s strained relationship with tech giants like Google, Apple, and Amazon could be elevating concern among more highly-educated Americans who work in those industries.

Overall, the positive macroeconomic performance measures of the U.S. economy of the past year do not appear to have translated into widespread optimism among Americans about the future of their jobs. While levels of pessimism aren’t particularly high, it doesn’t seem that our robust economic conditions are resonating with the public in the way one would expect.

Concerns about the broader direction of the U.S. and our relationship with other countries appear to be dampening the impact of strong economic performance on American perceptions about their jobs and industries in upcoming years.



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Emery Reddy