From parents to policy-makers, corporations to charities, schools to sociologists, we’re all interested in what young people think and feel. On the one hand, we hear stories about their pressured lives under the tyranny of social media and the uncertainty of the modern economy. On the other, we hear about the luckiest generation in history – lives rich in good health, opportunity and excitement.
But we rarely hold these thumbnail sketches against reality. That is why the Varkey Foundation commissioned Populus to conduct an international opinion survey – in 20 developed and developing countries – of the teenagers and young adults (all between the ages of 15 and 21) who make up Generation Z.
First, we asked whether they were happy. Gratifyingly, over two-thirds (68%) said they were. However, happiness tended to be higher in developing countries than in the richer developed world: 90% of Indonesians and 78% of Nigerians said they were happy, compared with just 57% of young people in Britain and France.
Factors contributing to overall happiness
When we probed a little deeper, the picture became bleaker. Less than a fifth of young people across the world feel that they get enough sleep, exercise, rest and time for reflection. In Britain, young people have the second-lowest mental well-being of any of the 20 countries surveyed.
School pressure was among the greatest source of anxiety for the world's young – experienced by around half of them. The pressure was at its greatest in South Korea – which is famous for hothousing students in fiercely competitive schools. Despite impressive PISA results, the system seems to exact a heavy toll, with more than two-thirds of young South Koreans saying that school is a main source of anxiety. They were the least happy of all the countries surveyed.
For all the rapid pace of social progress, young people overwhelmingly say that their values were influenced by traditional sources – parents, followed by friends and teachers. Less than a third of young people overall say that celebrities influenced their values. And for all the perceptions that Generation Z is obsessed with becoming famous, only a tiny proportion (3%) valued celebrity status and fame when thinking about their future career.
Equally cheering is the fact that, despite our fears of increasing divisions along ethnic and religions lines, two-thirds of young people have close friends from other religions, and only a small segment (less than a fifth) say a person’s religion is an important factor when deciding whether to be friends with someone.
Old problems, young approach
Above all, the poll wanted to reveal what Generation Z think. Are they divided by geography and culture, or do they share a set of global values? We found that they take a liberal stance on a wide range of personal and political issues – regardless of their religion. In 14 out of 20 countries, young people wanted to make legal immigration easier rather than more difficult (including in the United States) and they are nearly four times as likely to think their government should do more, rather than less, to solve the global refugee crisis.
Overwhelmingly, they believe that men and women should be treated equally – with the greatest support for these values in the very different societies of Canada and China. Nearly two-thirds think that same-sex marriage should be legal. (Even in India and South Korea, where it is currently illegal, half of young people support it.) Three-quarters of young people also believe that transgender people should have the same rights as non-transgender people – with support higher in India than in France. What this shows is that generalizations about conservative developing countries and more liberal developed countries are out of date.
Most important personal value
On free speech, young people were more divided: only around half globally thought that free speech should be protected even if offensive to a religion or minority group. It was higher in countries such as Turkey and Argentina, where there is a history of censorship. It’s alarming that in the United Kingdom and France and the US – those historical champions of free speech – less than two-thirds believe in these freedoms.
Generation Z are also pessimistic about the state of the world. More think that the world is becoming worse rather than better – with young people in Britain and other developed countries more pessimistic than in rising powers such as India and China. Globally, terrorism and conflict are their greatest fears for the future. In China, which emits more carbon dioxide than any other country, young people are more concerned about climate change than anything else.
And what about the future? Most young people felt the solutions to world problems would come via technology, according to the poll. And there's much to be optimistic about: Generation Z are more likely to travel widely, forge friendships and marry people from other cultures than their parents and grandparents. This lived experience is influencing their values. Whatever else is happening in world events and politics, most young people think of themselves as global citizens.