• Economic pessimism among the youth is more likely in high-income countries, compared with middle- and low-income ones.
  • A new survey, the Changing Childhood Project, asked what it’s like growing up now.
  • While optimism is common among the young, its degree varies from place to place.
  • Overall, with each additional year of age, people are 1% less likely to say the world is becoming a better place.

Will you be better off than your parents?

It’s a question that’s long been asked as one way to benchmark the economic progress of our societies. And while young people around the world think children in their countries will, on the whole, be better off than their parents, there’s a striking difference between the thoughts of those in rich countries and those in poorer ones.

That’s among the findings of a new multigenerational and international study carried out by UNICEF, and published in The Changing Childhood Project alongside World Children’s Day.

Just over half (54%) of young people across all of the 21 countries surveyed said today’s children will be better off, versus 45% of older people. And the survey reveals broad optimism among young people, with 57% saying the world is becoming a better place.

Set against a backdrop of concerns about climate change and equality, the report found little evidence that young people are downbeat about the future or disaffected with governments and policymakers, according to Laurence Chandy, Director, Global Insight & Policy at UNICEF.

Economic optimism varies around the world

Even so, it did reveal a split: in high-income countries, young people are twice as likely to think children will be worse off than their parents (59%) as they are to think they will be better off (31%).

Economic optimism varies between high- and low-income countries.
Economic optimism varies between high- and low-income countries.
Image: UNICEF/GALLUP report

“Their views reflect the economic reality that real wages over the past two decades have almost tripled in emerging and developing G20 countries, while barely budging in advanced economies,” the report said. “Older people in high-income countries are even more pessimistic than the young on this point.”

By contrast, in upper-middle-income countries, 50% of young people said children in their country will grow up to be economically better off than their parents, and the number was 69% in low- and low-middle income countries.

Young people in developing countries were more optimistic than their wealthier-nation counterparts.
Young people in developing countries were more optimistic than their wealthier-nation counterparts.
Image: UNICEF/GALLUP report

“Our parents grew up in poverty and faced challenges that we do not face,” one of the respondents, Shamim of Bangladesh, told the report’s authors, who chose not to include surnames for the respondents. “In my parents’ time, there weren’t so many opportunities for a job. Nowadays in the garment industry or other sectors, jobs are more available.”

The potential of young people is not being fully harnessed around the world, according to data from the International Labour Organization, which shows that labour underutilization is more prevalent among younger people than among all adults.

The same report also showed that employment quality remains a challenge for youth.

Employment opportunities

“In theory, employed youth are gaining valuable work experience and practical skills that should set them on the path to a successful career and a bright future,” the report says. “In practice, however, many young workers engage in jobs of poor quality in order to survive. These young people are often engaged in jobs characterized by precarious working conditions, instability, a lack of legal and social protection and limited opportunities for training and career progression.”

Some governments have recognized the unique challenges and are moving to help young people. Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez plans to offer adults aged 18 to 35 cash for rent to help them leave their family homes. Sánchez said he wants young people to “have access to decent rental housing”.

Unless proactive measures are taken, inequality of opportunities is likely to be exacerbated by the onset of technology and the impact of the pandemic, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2020 report.

“Jobs held by lower-wage workers, women and younger workers were more deeply impacted in the first phase of the economic contraction,” that report said.

Attitudes shift as people get older, according to the UNICEF report. Across all 21 countries surveyed, 57% of young people say the world is becoming a better place with each new generation, versus 39% of older people.

With each additional year of age, people are 1% less likely to say the world is becoming a better place, the research shows.

Young people were more likely to feel optimistic about the future than older people.
Young people were more likely to feel optimistic about the future than older people.
Image: UNICEF/GALLUP report

While in almost every country young people are at least marginally more likely to say the world is becoming a better place with each generation, there were some significant gaps, the largest being in Japan, Argentina, Ukraine, Germany, Spain and the US. In India, Bangladesh, Morocco and Nigeria, young and older people see the world in much the same way, the survey shows.

“I think there are a lot of problems that are going to get worse,” one young person, John from the UK, told the survey, citing growing awareness of climate change and discrimination – and emerging efforts to combat both – as reasons to be upbeat.