WASHINGTON - The American dream of life getting better for each new generation feels like a myth to many of today's young adults.
After coming of age during a deep recession, most expect to have a harder time buying a house and saving for retirement than their parents did. More than 4 in 10 predict it will be tougher to raise a family and afford the lifestyle they want, according to an Associated Press-Viacom poll of Americans ages 18 to 24.
Only about a fourth expect things to be easier for them than the previous generation - a cherished goal of many hardworking parents.
"I just don't really see myself being able to obtain the kind of money my parents could when they were my age," said Mark McNally, 23, who earned a history degree from the University of Minnesota a year ago and now works part-time in a liquor store.
San Francisco State University nursing student Ashley Yates is confident she'll build a career in health care but expects money to be tighter in her lifetime. "Social Security may not even exist when I'm older," said Yates, 23. "Health insurance is going up. Everything just costs more."
Sounds like a bummer, right? Yet most young adults are shrugging it off. Despite financial disappointments, they overwhelmingly say they're happy with their lives, much more so than older folks in similar surveys.
Youthful optimism - with perhaps a touch of naivete - lives on. A whopping 90 percent expect to find careers that will bring them happiness, if not wealth.
Linka Preus, who's taking a year off her career track to work in an Ithaca, N.Y., bagel bakery, figures every generation has its own struggles, and bad economies eventually improve.
"Even if it never gets better permanently, we'll adjust to whatever it is," said Preus, 22, a linguistics and cognitive science grad from Cornell University who plans to pursue her passion for science in graduate school.
McNally, the history major, says he's enjoying life as a part-time clerk in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina before he gets tied down in a research or analyst job.
"I'll be able to find one in the future, I'm sure of it," McNally said. "I'll find one or go back to school."
High unemployment has left lots of young lives in limbo. Among students who don't plan to go to work right after college, three-fourths say the limited number of open jobs in their field was important to their decision. Riding out the tough times in grad school is a popular choice for those with the means.
But for some without such options, optimism is hard to muster.
Nathan Watkins, out of work in rural Epworth, Ga., has little job experience, no car and no access to public transportation.
"I'm literally stuck and there's nothing I can do about it. At least I feel that way," said Watkins, 23, a high school graduate who lives with his mother and tries to compensate her by doing chores.
He's seeking work of any type. "Honestly, at this point, I wouldn't care. In this economy, you take what you can get."
Young people today are more pessimistic about their economic futures than young adults in a similar poll in April 2007, eight months before the recession began. And most say they cannot afford the things they want or are struggling at least a little to make their money last through each week. About half are dependent on family members for financial support.
Seventy-five percent say the economy is in poor shape, on par with older people surveyed in a recent AP-GfK poll.
And they're not just worried about themselves; 7 out of 10 fret about their parents' finances. About 20 percent saw a parent laid off during the past year and a half, according to the AP-Viacom study, conducted in partnership with Stanford University.
Money troubles are steering the course of young lives. A majority say finances were a key factor in deciding whether to continue their educations past high school and, if they did, which college to attend, and what kind of career to seek.
Lucas Ward couldn't keep up with the tuition in community college, despite working three jobs at once - at a gas station, a hotel and a restaurant in scenic and touristy Hood River, Ore.
With youthful pluck, he found opportunity elsewhere.
Ward fell into a job doing a bit of everything for a small outdoor clothing company, and the business took off. The housing collapse that busted so many baby boomers made prices suddenly affordable, so Ward bought a home. At 23, he's about to invest in a second house and building his own clothing company.
"A lot of stuff in the news is telling everyone that they can't, that the economy is crumbling and there's no room for anyone to do anything," Ward said. "But I'm watching that being disproven every day."
The AP-Viacom telephone survey of 1,104 adults ages 18-24 was conducted Feb. 18-March 6 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Stanford University's participation in this project was made possible by a grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
(Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)