The world appears safer in Generation Z’s hands

A ‘reassuring’ global survey of people born around the turn of the millennium reveals that the majority are serious-minded, internationalist and supportive of human rights
10th February 2017, 12:00am
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The world appears safer in Generation Z’s hands

“What do young people around the world think and feel?” may seem like a simple question, but it’s one that we tend to answer with anecdotes rather than evidence. On the one hand, we hear about their anxiety-ridden lives and their struggles to find jobs or housing. On the other, we are told a sunlit story of a tolerant, tech-savvy generation; the most educated and free in human history.

There has been - until now - surprisingly little data on the attitudes, hopes and values of young people at a global level. That is why the Varkey Foundation commissioned the polling company Populus to conduct an international opinion survey - in 20 developed and developing countries - of the 15- to 21-year-olds that make up “Generation Z”: the babies born at the turn of the millennium.

They have come of age at a time when technology has shrunk the world. They are, of course, more likely to travel, to migrate across borders and to forge friendships in other countries - online and offline - than any previous generation. And this seems to have had a major impact on their values. Our data indicates that what they have in common is stronger than geography or culture. They are, by a large majority, liberal globalists.

Rights of minorities

Young people, regardless of faith, tend to be committed to the rights of minorities, to helping vulnerable groups such as refugees, and tend to be committed to transgender rights or same-sex marriage even in countries where they are still contentious. The fact that support for transgender rights is higher in India than in France, or that support for gender equality is highest in China, should banish stereotypes of a liberal West and a conservative developing world.

The same is true in young people’s attitudes towards international politics. Climate change is no longer just a concern for liberals in Europe but is feared by the highest proportion of people in China - who judge it the greatest threat that they face. It’s a hopeful development that the young population of the country with the greatest carbon emissions is more aware than anyone of the seriousness of the climate crisis and will be pressing for change.

An interesting question the survey throws up is why happiness and optimism levels tend to be so much higher in developing countries such as China, India and Nigeria than in the West. My hunch is that it’s not where you are, but the direction of travel that is important. In emerging economies where material wellbeing has radically improved, memories of a harder past are still fresh. Young people, through the tales of their parents and grandparents, can see how their life chances have been transformed in a few short decades.

Meanwhile, advanced economies such as France, Italy and the UK may have higher living standards than much of the developing world, but young people perhaps similarly look at their parents’ lives and see a security - a steady job, an affordable house and a well-funded pension - that will not be in their generation’s reach.

The populism being fomented in Europe and the US owes much to this sense that the “middle-class lifestyle” is under threat. It’s a worrying sign - for them and for mainstream politics - that young people in the West feel so pessimistic about the future.

Confidence in technology

However, despite this pessimism in the West, members of Generation Z everywhere have the confidence in technology of digital natives. They were born at the moment when the world first went online, and were young children when Facebook and the iPhone were launched. They are the first generation that has grown up with the human experiment of social media - in which our attitudes towards information, relationships and privacy have transformed.

Yet, despite the massive amount of attention that we give to the darker side of the online world, it’s interesting that fewer than one in 10 members of Generation Z see social media as their main source of anxiety. For most, it doesn’t seem to stress them, because it’s all they have ever known.

As the skills required by the economy change faster than ever before, Generation Z can expect to constantly retrain as they see skills they’ve learned become redundant.

Optimism levels tend to be higher in developing countries

The World Economic Forum estimates that 28 per cent of the skills required by the economy will change in the next four years owing to automation, making huge numbers of jobs obsolete at all levels of the workplace. Despite these upheavals, young people, according to the survey, overwhelmingly place faith in technology as their greatest hope for the future.

The reflection we see when we hold up a mirror to Generation Z is a cause for great hope. They have the qualities we’d want given the huge global issues - from climate change to extremism - that they will have to tackle.

They are serious-minded, internationalist, open, and sceptical of celebrity values. Contrary to the myth of a self-absorbed generation lost in their smartphones, two-thirds say that making a wider contribution to society (beyond looking after oneself and one’s family and friends) is important to them. However, a significant minority say they need better skills and support to know how to do this.

That is something that we all have a responsibility to help them with. In this darkening political landscape, it’s reassuring to know that the idea of global citizenship is not dead to Generation Z: it could just be coming alive.

Vikas Pota is chief executive of the Varkey Foundation. Generation Z: What Young People Think and Feel was published on Wednesday

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