In terms of achieving personal success, new Northwestern Mutual research reveals that Americans feel they are doing quite well in the areas that matter to them most. Approximately three-quarters of people feel they are doing at least somewhat well in spending time with family, having a good relationship with their spouse or partner, or being a good parent (79%, 73%, and 79%, respectively). In comparison, only half say they are happy with their career, 38% in owning the home of their dreams, and 23% in earning a high income.

Money is a means to an end

While success in family matters is clearly most important, a vast majority of Americans also place financial security among their top concerns, with three in four respondents saying that financial security is somewhat or very important to them. However, only 6% strongly agreed that money alone would equate to happiness.  

“We see this as an indication that people see financial security as a catalyst to the things they really want in life – to be able to spend quality time with their families; to achieve a better work/life balance; and to be the kind of parent, spouse, and partner they aspire to be,” said Mathew Greenwald, President and Chief Executive Officer of Mathew Greenwald & Associates.

The news isn’t particularly good, though, when it comes to how Americans are assessing themselves financially.  Only one in eight respondents (12%) feel very or extremely secure in their finances; and more than four in ten (44%) feel unprepared for the future.

Still, there are bright spots on the horizon. More than four in ten respondents report that they expect to spend less (41%) and increase their savings (42%) beginning in 2009.  Furthermore, despite the economic turmoil, Americans remain optimistic – only 19% of respondents expect their level of financial security to decline in 2009, and 65% believe that they will eventually get to where they want to be in life.

“It appears that Americans are addressing the serious financial challenges they’re facing more realistically now than perhaps they did prior to the global economic crisis,” said Oberland.  “We were encouraged to see that people plan to save more, and are placing a greater priority on achieving financial security for the future.”

Forget doom and gloom. Americans are happy.

The American Reality Study also suggests that, while times are tough, Americans are happy; and expect to be even happier soon.

On a scale of 1 (extremely unhappy) to 10 (extremely happy), survey respondents reported an average happiness level of 6.5.  Moreover, despite the unprecedented economic turmoil around the world, the average American expects their level of happiness will increase to a rating of 7.3 only one year from now, and will jump to 7.9 within five years.

In keeping with the pattern of optimism and expectation of better things to come, Americans anticipate that the next generation will be happier when they reach their parents’ age (7.8 versus 6.5).

Stereotypes about age are outdated

The findings of The American Reality Study suggest that some common generational stereotypes are likely mistaken. Perhaps most surprisingly, older Americans, aged 55+, expressed a greater sense of idealism than other generations, placing a stronger importance on such things as environmentalism, world peace and making a positive contribution to society.

For example, 62% of people aged 55+ consider themselves environmentally friendly, compared with 52% aged 25-34. Half of older Americans define success as being environmentally friendly, compared with 39% aged 25-34, and a substantially greater number of older Americans (33%) cite world peace among the goals that would make the biggest improvement to their lives, versus those aged 25-34 (9%). 

Older people even appear to believe in youth more than young people do – 71% of people aged 55 and older believe that young people will make a positive contribution to the country’s future versus only 59% of those younger.

Finally, while many assume that the best years in life come either in the youth of one’s 20s, with its characteristic freedom and sense of possibility; or in one’s 60s, with its comfort and time for leisure, The American Reality Study suggests otherwise.  Three in ten Americans (29%) believe that middle adulthood (ages 35 to 54) will end up being the best stage of life, twice as many as cite any other life stage.

About the research

Northwestern Mutual sponsored The American Reality Study to help provide insight into how Americans are handling the economic, political, and social changes taking place in the U.S. and what the impact has been on the way they view their lives and their future. Independent research firm Mathew Greenwald & Associates conducted the online survey of 1,000 Americans age 25 or older between January 6 and January 14, 2009.  Study participants were selected from among members of Survey Sampling International’s SurveySpot™ Internet Survey Panel. The survey data were weighted by gender, age and household income to reflect the makeup of the U.S. population ages 25 or older.  Population statistics were based on data from the 2007 Current Population Survey.  A detailed description of the weighting methodology is available upon request.

About Northwestern Mutual

The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company – Milwaukee, WI (Northwestern Mutual) has helped clients achieve financial security for more than 150 years. As a mutual company with over $1 trillion of life insurance protection in force, Northwestern Mutual seeks to share its gains with policyowners and deliver consistent and dependable value to clients over time.

Northwestern Mutual is an industry leader in total individual life insurance and disability insurance dividends paid to participating policyowners. Though dividends are not guaranteed, are reviewed annually and are subject to change, the company has paid life insurance dividends every year since 1872.

Northwestern Mutual and its subsidiaries offer a holistic approach to financial security solutions including: life insurance, long-term care insurance, disability insurance, annuities, investment products, and advisory products and services. Subsidiaries include Northwestern Mutual Investment Services, LLC, broker-dealer, registered investment advisor, member FINRA and SIPC; the Northwestern Mutual Wealth Management Company, limited purpose federal savings bank; and Northwestern Long Term Care Insurance Company; and Russell Investment Group. Further information can be found at http://www.northwesternmutual.com.