Why Are Our Kids Pessimistic About Their Futures?

By Shlomo Maital

    A great deal has been lost in the COVID-19 pandemic —  millions of lives,  health, jobs, income, employment – and, let’s pay attention,  our kids’ futures.  At least, in their opinions.

    September 2018, pre-pandemic:   a global survey by the Gates Foundation finds – more than 9 in 10 teenagers in Kenya, Mexico, China, Nigeria and India reported feeling positive about their future.  France and Sweden were the most pessimistic of countries surveyed (for young people). 

     Fast forward:  the Guardian, a leading British newspaper, reports that “(British) young people have a gloomy and newly pessimistic outlook on the future.  This is not consistent with pre-COVID-19 times, which usually finds young people optimistic about their own future”.

     What happened?  Agency!  Young people widely believe in their own abilities to navigate whatever life throws at them; they even see uncertainty as opportunity.  But COVID-19 dealt a sudden blow, says the report, to young people’s belief in their own agency.  Stay-at-home tells youth:  You are not in control.

    And now —  a Pew Research survey in the US shows 68% of US respondents say they think today’s children will be financially worse off as adults than their parents.!  Two-thirds!   The survey also covered 17 advanced economies.  And Canada, Japan, France, Italy, Spain and Belgium were all equally or more pessimistic. 

     Build Back Better?  Of course – bridges, jobs, the global supply chain,  5G networks.  But I believe the first priority is to restore the faith, resilience, self-belief, self-worth, and self-efficacy of our children.  We older people are partly to blame.  Our own pessimism projects clearly to the kids, even if we do not clearly state it. 

     The pandemic and the climate crisis have combined lethally, like gasoline fumes and a spark.  The world is in bad shape.  But was it in great shape in 1930 when a decade-long depression began?  Or in 1939, when a terrible World War broke out?  In 2008, when the world financial system collapsed? 

       Part of our kids’ pessimism is related to dysfunctional politics.  According to surveys, they do not believe they can change the system or influence it.

     In Japan, where national elections are being held,  a large majority of older people vote, while only a third of the young people do so.  Rural areas in Japan, mostly elderly, have twice the electoral power than cities. And they vote for the same dinosaur party.  The kids in cities have given up. Why bother voting? 

        Agency is defined as “action to achieve a particular result or effect”.  If you believe you have agency, you can change things and make them better.  If you believe you lack agency,  then you are powerless – and hence pessimistic.

       How can we restore our young people’s agency?  Their resilience?   Because if we cannot, we will suffer far more from it than from two degrees of global warming.