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Where Are Young People Most Optimistic? In Poorer Nations.

More than half of Americans, young and old, say children today will be less economically successful than their parents, a global survey shows.

By Claire Cain Miller and Alicia Parlapiano, NY Times

Nov. 17, 2021

Will the next generation do better than the one that came before? To young people in wealthier nations, that dream of upward mobility seems more like a story about the past than modern-day reality, according to a large new survey taken in 21 countries.

In poorer countries, though, there is still hope that young people’s lives will be better than those of their parents, and that the world is becoming a better place.

“In a lot of the developing world, there is a bit more optimism that yes, with each generation our living standards are improving,” said Laurence Chandy, director of the office of global insight and policy at UNICEF, which conducted the survey with Gallup. “But there’s a recognition in the West that’s stopped happening.”

In the United States, 56 percent of young people and 64 percent of older people said that children today would be worse off, economically, than their parents — a view that comports with the economic realities for many in recent years.

The survey was of 21,000 people in two age groups — 15 to 24, and 40 and up — and included nationally representative samples from all regions of the world. The younger group said that children today were better off in basic ways, like education, health care and physical safety. In the median country, 57 percent of them said the world was becoming a better place with each generation, compared with 39 percent of older people.

And the best part of being a young person today? Technology, according to respondents in follow-up interviews.

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“Young people these days have access to information and new technologies that other generations haven’t even come close to having,” said Victor Paganotto Carvalho Freitas, 24, from São Paulo, Brazil. “With the advent of the internet, it is possible to learn different skills from within your bedroom.”

But young people also have significant concerns. In the surveys, about nine in 10 said they sometimes or often have anxiety. Six in 10 said children today have more pressure from adults to succeed than their parents did. Seven in 10 say the actions of their parents’ generation have contributed to climate change.

The survey, conducted from February to June, did not directly ask about the pandemic (the researchers weren’t confident that answers could be compared because Covid has hit countries at different times). But young people said countries would be safer if they cooperated more to fight threats like Covid. A majority said they struggled with mental health. And the institutions in which they had the highest levels of trust were medicine and science (social media and religious institutions were lowest).

“I just think about Covid when I think about the future,” said Landen Otaka, 16, from Hawaii. “We’re trying to adapt to what has become.”

In the six richest countries in the survey, about one-third of young people said they thought today’s children would be economically better off than their parents. They were particularly pessimistic in Japan, France, Britain and Spain.

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In low-income countries, though, about two-thirds of young people said they thought today’s children would do better financially than their parents, especially in Africa and South Asia. They were also more likely than those in high- or middle-income countries to say the world was becoming a better place with each generation.

Wealth accumulation and improvements in living standards may be slowing for many in the global North, said Sharlene Swartz, a sociologist at the Human Sciences Research Council in Pretoria, South Africa, whose research focuses on young people. “But in almost all of the global South, that is not true,” she said. “Living standards have been improved across the board. People have been lifted out of poverty. Malaria treatment, H.I.V. medication — all those things are leading to people living longer lives.”

Still, the optimism was not universal in the developing world.

“The worst part are destroyed economics, negative effects of capitalism and climate change, which our generation will have to deal with,” said Valeriia Drabych, 19, from Kyiv, Ukraine. “Lust of money, which our ancestors did not know how to overcome, brought us to the state we are in today. We have to sort it all out, and we have to do it ASAP!”

In the West, particularly the United States, many young people surveyed said that not everyone is born at the same starting line, and that success is not entirely within their control. The American dream has often been defined as a belief that those who work hard will live a “better, richer and happier life,” regardless of the circumstances in which they’re born. But this generation appears to have doubts — which matches a recent economic finding that since 1980, Americans are no longer likelier than not to earn more than their parents.

Young Americans still said hard work was most important to success, but the second-largest share said it was family wealth and connections. Older people in the United States were 40 percent more likely than young people to say hard work was most important, and half as likely to say it was family wealth or connections.

What Young People Think is the Most Important Factor in Determining Success

How 15- to 24-year-olds in each country responded.

Note: Countries are sorted from richest to poorest according to a measure of gross national income per capita used by the World Bank.Source: UNICEF-Gallup survey of more than 21,000 people conducted by telephone in 21 countries between February and June 2021.

“We’re starting to tell different stories here, not always about Rocky and Rudy and the bootstrap thing,” said Bob McKinnon, founder of Moving Up Media Lab, a nonprofit focused on helping people recognize who and what influenced their lives. “On one hand, you want and need people to believe that they can make a difference in their own lives, but on the other hand, you need people to understand it’s about more than just their own hard work.”

Makeila Ward, 16, from Nevada, is taking classes at community college during high school, and plans to become a flight nurse in the Air Force. “People who start off with a better life than others have higher chances of getting more successful more easily,” she said. “But even with a hard background, if you put the work in and save up the money, most of the time you get what you deserve.”

"The state of the world right now is very upsetting. Humanity is certainly doing something wrong."

Young people in low- and middle-income countries were more likely to say that things within their control — education and hard work — were most important. In South America, India and some African nations, they said education was the strongest factor in success. This was also the case in Germany, which was an outlier among rich countries in this way.

“We do not get to choose our families or social status, but that has never been a hindrance for anyone to succeed,” said Lorraine Nduta, 21, from Nairobi, Kenya. “In fact, I think when you have less, it fuels you to seek more. The power to change any situation lies with us — hard work, consistency and discipline.”

Md. Rafaiat Ullah, 24, a university student in Chittagong, Bangladesh, said he thought he would be in a better financial position than his parents because of education. “My parents didn’t get a chance to be educated that much,” he said. “But even though they didn’t, they did educate me. Education creates opportunity.”

In developing countries, there is an increasing priority on education as a way to move up; in the United States, universal education has existed longer and higher education has become a dividing line, said Dr. Robert Blum, principal investigator of the Global Early Adolescent Study at Johns Hopkins.

“In low- and middle-income countries,” he said, “it’s seen as: ‘What’s my ticket to doing better? I don’t have many tickets. I don’t have a family with wealth, my social capital is really limited. So my ticket is going to be education if I have anything at all.’”

In her research, Professor Swartz has found that young people in poor countries often draw optimism from religious faith as well as strong family and community bonds.

“When people write about the global South and young people living in poverty, they frequently discount that kind of faith in a higher being, and faith that older siblings are paving the way for them,” she said.

Throughout the world, the dream of a better life for the next generation persists, even if it’s increasingly out of reach in certain places.

“I want to be an optimist and think that some day the world will open its eyes and let everyone be whatever they want to be, helping to have better access to school and work opportunities,” said Angela Bahamonde Ahijado, 24, from Cetina, Spain. “That is what I would ask for my daughter, and I know that my parents in their day asked for it for me.”

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Claire Cain Miller writes about gender, families and the future of work for The Upshot. She joined The Times in 2008 and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues. @clairecm • Facebook

Alicia Parlapiano is a graphics editor and reporter covering politics and policy from Washington. She joined The Times in 2011 and previously worked at The Washington Post and the Pew Research Center. @aliciaparlap


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