What do Americans believe will be the key issues of 2050?

Every year, survey research organizations ask Americans what they believe are the key issues facing the country. This is valuable information for political leaders planning their election campaigns and platforms. To get elected, they always have to address short-term issues on voters’ minds. In a long-term democracy, leaders would also want to know what citizens believe are the key issues facing the country decades into the future.  By anticipating long-term issues, proactive leaders can make small, incremental changes to address them before they become crises.

The Pew Research Center recently completed a study of how Americans are looking at the nation’s future and published their results. They asked over 2,500 representative Americans about conditions they expected for America and what they believed would be the key issues facing the nation in the year 2050. This is a valuable and detailed study–worth the read.

The part I found the most useful were questions about what people believed would improve life for future generations of Americans:

Majorities say increased government spending on health care, education would improve life for future generations

These are the areas on which political leaders can build support because voters see their value for our children and grandchildren. Many of them are also contradictory, which calls out the highest political skill and creativity in our leaders to forge compromises and implement policies that slowly lead to positive change on multiple fronts.

Work on these issues also calls for bipartisanship because neither Republicans nor Democrats see the whole picture of what the nation needs. As other parts of the report make clear, Democrats are much better at recognizing the danger of climate change while Republicans are much better at recognizing the problem of undocumented immigrants. Won’t our grandchildren be better off if we tackle both the problems of super storms from climate change and depressed wages from undocumented immigrants taking jobs in an underground economy? Wouldn’t leaders in a long-term democracy listen to concerns on both sides of the partisan divide and value their perceptions? Some of the long-term members of Congress, secure in their seats, should be leading the way.

Pew’s data on issues is valuable, but I would recommend ignoring questions in which Pew asked people to predict the future in 2050: “Will the U.S. be more or less important in the world?” “Will the gap between the rich and poor grow or get smaller?” Nobody knows the answers to questions like these, but the authors use their survey results to spin a tale of Americans seeing the nation’s decline in many areas. Anyone who has been around for a few decades knows that the national mood swings and that prophesy is a fool’s errand for us poor mortals.

The picture at the top of this note is taken from the Pew article–is it sunrise or sunset in America? Rather than letting our mood swing with the rest, we accomplish more if we take the stance of a conditional optimist: America’s future will be great if we make it so. The issues are there before us, so let’s get to work and make a better world for our children and grandchildren.