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Published Oct. 8, 2005

Imagine a place where the people are safer from most crimes than they have been in years. Where the economy is booming and good jobs are multiplying. Where people eat better, get divorced less and live longer.

Seems pretty distant, doesn't it?

It shouldn't. It's life in the United States in 1994. You wouldn't know it, but the country is in pretty good shape according to most traditional barometers.

Yet we aren't very happy.

"General fear permeates the public," said Diana Owen, a sociologist at Georgetown University.

That fear and anxiety is reflected in polls that show Americans increasingly angry at politicians, ready to throw out incumbents on Election Day, resentful of immigrants and distrustful of others not like them.

Once, Franklin Roosevelt calmed an anguished nation by boldly declaring, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Just a decade ago, Ronald Reagan assured people it was "morning in America," and a majority enthusiastically nodded yes despite the lingering pain from a deep recession.

Those messages might be even more apt today. Yet they would likely fall on deaf ears.

The nation is different, awash in a cynical environment far more receptive to suspicion and anxiety.

People might search for the good news, but find it hard to discover under the barrage of bad news, and hard to focus while standing on shifting ground.

We are no longer unified by a Cold War. The social contract at work _ work hard and you will have a job _ has been torn up as people and their jobs become the cannon fodder in a new international economy. Years of baby boomer-led individualism have eroded community institutions like marriage that sustained an earlier generation.

"Change creates fear, and we are in the middle of huge change in our society," said Ellen Hume, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program, a think tank affiliated with Northwestern University.

Of course, the fear is based in crushing reality for some. For those who have been laid off, those without health insurance, those who live in crime-ridden neighborhoods.

But anxiety knows no limits these days. It lingers among the vast majority of people who have jobs, who have insurance, who have not been victimized by criminals.

"We are being flooded with how dangerous our lives are," said Louise Enoch, 48, a Boston social worker. "Crime. Pollution. Airplanes. It affects our lives when you walk around feeling it is so dangerous. Are these things really worse than what they used to be? I don't know the answer. You are left completely confused."

Crime and perception

There is no better example of rampant anxiety in the face of improving news than crime.

Just two years ago, only 3 percent of Americans listed crime as the nation's top problem, according to the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press. By July of this year, the number of people listing crime as the top problem had soared to 26 percent.

This jump in fear came as the rate of most crimes actually decreased.

It is true that murder is up. In 1991, there were 10.9 homicides for every 100,000 Americans, more than twice the 1960 rate of 5.2 per 100,000.

But most other crimes are down.

Violent crime _ rape, robbery and assault _ is lower than it was 20 years ago. In 1973, there were 32.6 violent crimes for every 1,000 people in the country. In 1992, the last year available in Justice Department reports, there were 32.1 violent crimes for every 1,000 citizens.

Household crimes _ burglary, larceny and car thefts _ also are down. In 1973, there were 217.8 per 1,000 people. By 1992, the rate had dropped to 152.2 per 1,000.

But you wouldn't know it to listen to the evening news, to watch reality police shows, or to hear politicians on the campaign trail.

"There may be fewer crimes, but the very violent crimes make headlines," said Owen. "People see it every night. The media play a role in stirring up these fears."

There is a reason many people are drawn to these disturbing accounts. Perhaps more than before, people can see themselves in the images.

Even if there is less of it, the crime that is out there seems more violent, more random, more likely to strike home.

Economic anxieties

Overall, the news actually is better than most people think.

A booming economy has created 4-million new jobs. Nearly three out of four of the 2.5-million new jobs created this year alone have been in management. Average hourly pay is rising again. Unemployment is at its lowest in four years. The United States last year regained the title of the world's most competitive economy, ousting Japan after eight years, according to a rating by the World Economic Forum.

Yet a surprising number of people don't believe it.

In a recent poll by Time magazine and CNN, only 38 percent of those surveyed thought the economy is recovering.

Some of the gains in the economy have been bought with downsizing. Waves of layoffs at once-safe giants like IBM leave people feeling there is no safe harbor.

"Yes, you may have a job, but it's not like it used to be. You're still worried about being laid off," said Joseph Nocera, author of A Piece of the Action: How the Middle Class Joined the Money Class.

"It used to be that you had a job for life," said Bob Durako, 42, a bank supply manager in Springfield, Ill. "Nowadays, a job is not guaranteed. There's so much downsizing."

As corporations lay off thousands, they blame it on an economy changing to do battle with new international competitors.

The 1991 recession provided a disturbing look at the changing economy. Though it was relatively short _ 9 months _ it was a "mile wide," in the words of Mark Vitner, an economist at First Union National Bank in Charlotte, N.C.

"It touched far more people than the '81-'82 recession. It also impacted white collar workers. This was a recession more people saw . . . a greater percentage knew someone who had lost their job or had their wages reduced."

Even with the economy growing again, there is a "lingering anxiety" among many workers that they could still lose their jobs, Vitner said.

And it is especially bothersome at a time when people are more dependent than ever on their jobs to pay off growing debts, provide insurance for growing medical bills, and to save for college costs or retirement.

"People are more overextended," said Vitner.

The average American now owes about $2,800 in credit card bills, nearly double the average of $1,500 10 years ago.

And, he said, most people depend on their jobs for health insurance. Lose the job, lose the insurance. For those with a pre-existing medical condition, even getting a new job would leave them uncovered for that condition.

While it's true high-paying jobs are growing, they are for highly educated and skilled Americans. Good-paying jobs for people with less education and training are going overseas, leaving those folks moving lower on the ladder.

"It used to be you could graduate from high school, get a job with the phone company, and that was enough to buy a house and raise a family," said Democratic pollster Diane Feldman. "Now there's a perception that it is no longer true, particularly among those without a college education."

Said Nocera: "All this adds to job anxiety."

The family in flux

On the surface, things are looking up in the American family.

The divorce rate peaked in 1981 at 5.3 per 1,000 people. The median length of marriages increased from 6.7 years in 1970 to 7.1 years in 1988, according to the Statistical Abstract of the United States.

But a dominant force among American families, those headed by baby boomers, is wracked with anxiety.

"The baby boom is in middle age," said Cheryl Russell, a demographer and editor of the Boomer Report. "Middle age is a time to fret about many things . . . you have a lot of responsibilities."

Aging baby boomers are in the period of life with the greatest responsibilities and greatest expenses, like paying for braces, college and retirement.

"I'm concerned about providing for my family," said Chet Pahde, 32, a hospital respiratory therapist and father of two in Springfield, Ill. "It's difficult to save for a house, college tuition, retirement."

In addition to these external pressures, the American family has pressures from within. The look of the family is changing.

The next generation will have more children reared without two parents than ever before. More than one out of four (28 percent) babies born in 1990 were born out of wedlock, more than double the illegitimacy rate of 11 percent in 1970.

The rise in illegitimacy stems in part from the rise of individualism fostered by the baby boom. Russell suggested that a me-first and me-only attitude grew among boomers and prospered in the 1960s and that it condemned the ability of communal institutions to judge individuals.

"Nobody tells girls they're bad if they have a baby out of wedlock. There are no bad girls anymore . . . (But there is) an increase in out of wedlock births," said Russell. "The community no longer judges what happens."

And that produces all the more anxiety as a generation steeped in the needs and desires of the individual now needs the shelter of communal institutions like the family more than ever.

But there seems to be less community out there, and they helped tear it down.

"Individualism has exacerbated all these problems," said Russell. "It's the reason we feel society is falling apart."

With these new, underlying anxieties lurking across the country, it's easier to understand why a new president gets little credit for improvements in traditional barometers. And, it helps explain why he may become a one-term president.

But for those who might replace him, or those who might replace members of Congress, there also is a warning: It will take more than surface changes to assuage the anguished majority. It will likely take deep changes in the society itself _ in the media, in the economy, in the family _ before people start to feel better about the future.

Steven Thomma covers national politics and Angie Cannon the White House for Knight-Ridder Newspapers.