10 ways American workers view their future economic opportunities

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Victoria Masterson, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Identity, childcare and financial instability are among the reported barriers to future prosperity.
  • Black respondents were 4.5 times more likely than white respondents to say their race was a barrier to future job prospects.
  • Access to healthcare, the affordability of health insurance, or both, were a barrier to wellbeing for a third of respondents.

Recovery from COVID-19 in the United States will be a story of unequal economic opportunity, according to a new survey of 25,000 American workers.

In its inaugural American Opportunity Survey, management consultancy McKinsey & Company asked workers in the United States about their current economic standing, and the barriers they face to a more inclusive and prosperous future.

Here is a summary of the poll’s 10 key insights.

Ten insights of the current state of American opportunity
The thoughts of American workers. Image: Mckinsey & Company American opportunity survey

1. American workers overall are not feeling optimistic

Fewer than half of all respondents are optimistic about access to economic opportunity. Asked whether most Americans had opportunities to find good jobs, 42% of all respondents agreed, falling to 36% among lower-income respon­dents.

a chart showing American workers overall are not feeling optimistic
42% of all respondents agreed they had opportunities to find a good job. Image: Mckinsey & Company American opportunity survey

2. Many Americans feel their identity unfairly affects their job prospects

Women, people of colour and gay, lesbian, and bisexual respondents were among those who believe this. As the chart below shows, black respondents, for example, were 4.5 times more likely than white respondents to say their race was a barrier to future job prospects. Women were more than twice as likely as men to say their gender negatively affected their access to opportunity. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual respondents were four times more likely than straight respondents to say their sexual orientation negatively affected their job prospects.

charts showing many Americans feel their identity unfairly affects their job prospects
Black respondents were 4.5 times more likely than white respondents to say their race was a barrier to future job prospects. Image: Mckinsey & Company American opportunity survey

3. Immigrants and people of colour were relatively optimistic in outlook

Of all survey participants, first and second generation immigrants and workers of colour had some of the most optimistic views about economic opportunity. Black and Hispanic/Latino respondents, for example, were 60% more likely than white respondents to say that they expect more economic opportunities in the coming year. “This comes despite the stark economic disadvan­tages that immigrants and people of colour reported facing,” McKinsey says.

chart showing immigrants and people of colour were relatively optimistic in outlook
First and second generation immigrants and workers of colour had some of the most optimistic views about economic opportunity in this survey. Image: Mckinsey & Company American opportunity survey

4. Half of Americans say they’re on the financial brink

Financial instability and housing instability are key concerns. Thirty-seven percent of those surveyed said they could only cover their living expenses for two months or less if they lost their job. Twenty-six percent of respondents say their living situation is less secure now than it was 12 months ago, and 18% are worried about losing their housing.

a chart showing that half of Americans say they’re on the financial brink
26% percent of respondents say their living situation is less secure now than it was 12 months ago. Image: Mckinsey & Company American opportunity survey

5. COVID-19 has worsened existing inequalities

Women were among the most likely to report job losses, falls in income, savings, overall wealth, and well]being over the past 12 months. Workers with lower incomes; people of colour; gay, lesbian and bisexual respon­dents and people being treated for mental health-related conditions all reported greater declines in wellbeing and financial health than other respondents.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle inequity.

The Forum’s work on Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and Social Justice is driven by the New Economy and Society Platform, which is focused on building prosperous, inclusive and just economies and societies. In addition to its work on economic growth, revival and transformation, work, wages and job creation, and education, skills and learning, the Platform takes an integrated and holistic approach to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, and aims to tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity.

The Platform produces data, standards and insights, such as the Global Gender Gap Report and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 4.0 Toolkit, and drives or supports action initiatives, such as Partnering for Racial Justice in Business, The Valuable 500 – Closing the Disability Inclusion Gap, Hardwiring Gender Parity in the Future of Work, Closing the Gender Gap Country Accelerators, the Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality, the Community of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers and the Global Future Council on Equity and Social Justice.

a chart showing how COVID-19 has worsened existing inequalities
Women were the most likely to face these problems over the last 12 months. Image: Mckinsey & Company American opportunity survey

6. Healthcare access is challenging for many people

A third of respondents cited access to healthcare, the affordability of health insurance, or both as among the top three barriers to their wellbeing. Women and people of colour reported the most significant barriers, ranging from access to nutritious foods, mental-health treatment, and access to financial services.

a survey showing that healthcare access is challenging for many people
Healthcare is a top-three barrier to the wellbeing of one-third of respondents. Image: Mckinsey & Company American opportunity survey

7. Access to childcare is a critical barrier, especially for women

Having to take care of family was the third most cited barrier to searching for a job, picked by 18% of women and 16% of men. In those who had stopped looking for work, women were twice as likely than men to give this as a reason. Sixteen percent of the US workforce—26.8 million people—are dependent on childcare to work, according to McKinsey research. This has been a major concern for parents during the pandemic.

chart showing access to childcare is a critical barrier, especially for women
Sixteen percent of the US workforce are dependent on childcare to work. Image: Mckinsey & Company American opportunity survey

8. Rural Americans risk being left behind

People living in rural areas face “unique headwinds”, McKinsey says. About 60 million people – roughly one in five Americans – live in rural areas. Rural respondents were less willing than urban ones to say that they would move for work (22% versus 38%), switch industries (44% versus 52%), or change occupations (47% versus 52%).

a chart showing that rural Americans risk being left behind in the world of work
People living in rural areas face “unique headwinds”. Image: Mckinsey & Company American opportunity survey

9. Contract, freelance, and temporary workers would overwhelmingly prefer permanent employment

Sixty-two percent of contract, freelance, and temporary workers said they would prefer to work as permanent employees. This mirrors previous McKinsey research showing only about 30% of workers actively choose gig work as their full-time job. “A higher proportion of Black and Hispanic/Latino respondents, first- and second-generation immigrants, and those with less than a high-school education were gig workers, compared with the overall average of all respondents in our survey,” McKinsey said.

charts showing that contract, freelance, and temporary workers would overwhelmingly prefer permanent employment
Sixty-two percent of contract, freelance, and temporary workers said they would prefer to work as permanent employees. Image: Mckinsey & Company American opportunity survey

10. American workers are keen to train – but cost is a barrier for many

More than four in 10 Americans in the survey said they were either enrolled in training, interested in pursuing it, or both. But 55% of those reporting interest in pursuing training, education, or credentialing programs said the cost of education, access to financial support, or opportunity cost of lost wages were likely barriers to completing potential training.

To address the issues raised in the 10 insights, McKinsey has set out a number of interventions that could have the most impact. These include addressing issues that disproportionately affect women, like access to childcare; improving racial equity and addressing concerns about the affordability of education.

chart showing that American workers are keen to train – but cost is a barrier for many
Cost is a barrier for over half of people to complete potential training. Image: Mckinsey & Company American opportunity survey

Creating an inclusive economy for the future

Many of the findings in the McKinsey survey reflect those of the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, 2020. It also finds “the pandemic and the subsequent recession have impacted most those communities which were already at a disadvantage”. The recovery from the pandemic will happen at a time when automation is putting more pressure on jobs.

The Future of Jobs report concludes: “As the frontier between the work tasks performed by humans and those performed by machines and algorithms shifts, we have a short window of opportunity to ensure that these transformations lead to a new age of good work, good jobs and improved quality of life for all. In the midst of the pandemic recession, this window is closing fast. Businesses, governments and workers must plan to work together to implement a new vision for the global workforce.”

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