Affluent Outlook: Finding Clouds In A Silver Lining

Each January for the past 11 years, my company has fielded a questionnaire designed to gauge affluent consumers’ (adults 18+, HHI $125k+) views on the year just passed and their optimism regarding the one ahead.

One thing we have learned for certain is that context matters. Last year’s study was conducted in the context of a newly volatile equities market. This year’s was delivered on the heels of a banner year for the stock market.

With the economic storm clouds of late-2018 being replaced by the sunshine of 2019’s 23.2% increase in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, it’s no surprise that nearly all measures in our outlook increased from last year. Ratings that 2019 was a good year personally, financially and for the U.S. economy were all flat-to-up, and optimism for the year ahead also increased.

This positivity grows in lockstep with age, likely triggered by the commensurate growth of household net worth across generations. Considering that stock market growth is most manifestly felt by those with larger portfolios, it makes sense that groups with the largest base of assets felt the best about the past year.



So, while 63% of total Affluents said 2019 was a good year for the U.S. economy, 73% of boomers and 79% of seniors agreed with the statement. And their positive sentiments about the economy correlated with higher positive views on whether the year was good for America as a whole, with 43% of boomers and 45% of seniors agreeing, compared to only 38% of all Affluents.

However, when we scratch a little below the surface, it’s not difficult to see some clouds in the silver lining.

We start to see issues in the fact that, amid the growth in personal and economic ratings, views that “2019 was a good year for my family” are down vs. YAG. This signals there are deeper concerns, even among all that personal and economic positivity.

We also see significant differences between men and women. Affluent men’s ratings for all measures for 2019 were higher compared to last year, while women’s are much more mixed. And just 64% of women say 2019 was good for their families (vs. 72% of men), a drop of eight percentage points from last year.

This is driving the high level of polarization seen in the results. Despite the current economic context, a majority of Affluents say the country is on the wrong track vs. the right track, with women much more likely than men to say America is going in the wrong direction.

“Right trackers” and “wrong trackers” have very different views of 2019. Nine-of-ten “right trackers” say 2019 was a good year for the U.S. economy, compared to only 46% of “wrong trackers”. And 80% say it was a good year for America as a whole, vs. just 12% of “wrong trackers.”

The economy is paramount for “right trackers,” while other issues supersede it for those who say America is on the wrong track. “Right trackers’” open-endedly cite the stock market and the economy.

“Wrong trackers,” on the other hand, talk about the current administration and healthcare costs. And when ranking the top issues facing the U.S. today, “right trackers” rate the economy number one. However, the economy is just the third most important issue for “wrong trackers,” eclipsed by healthcare and the environment. It may come as no surprise, but that’s the same order for women as well.

Which “track” one thinks America is on also affects one’s optimism for the new year. 84% of those saying America is on the right track believe 2020 will be a good year for America as a whole, while just 17% of “wrong trackers” agree. All remaining measures of optimism, both personal and economic, are also lower for them — in some cases significantly so.

We’ll be watching this polarity — and the differing levels of optimism — as the U.S. makes its way through a very active election cycle.

2 comments about "Affluent Outlook: Finding Clouds In A Silver Lining".
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  1. Ronald Kurtz from American Affluence Research Center, February 24, 2020 at 4:17 p.m.

    Marketers dependent on the truly affluent shoud be very cautious about the use of this data. Income is a more volatile and less accurate measure of affluence than net worth. This is suggested by the fact that the boomers and seniors, where net worth is concentrated, are much more positive than the rest of the sample.

    Also, $125K income (about 25% of all households) is hardly affluent, especially for a family living in major metro areas and along the coasts, where housing and the cost of living are higher.  

  2. Michael Baer from Stratecution Consulting replied, February 24, 2020 at 5 p.m.

    Thanks, Ron. This is the exact point I made about Boomers and Seniors - their higher positivity is aligned with/correlates with their higher net worth (and our data corroborates that HNW households are also more positive). 

    We have focused our research (for over 40 years) on the top 20% HH's in America - which aligns with a HHI $125k+. Naturally, this is more "mass affluent" than a "truly affluent" group, as you say. However the sample size is large enough for us to provide relevant brands and marketers statistical cuts of HNW and beyond.

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