What do young people in developing countries think? There is of course a wealth of anecdotal knowledge. It’s commonly said that they value education more than young people in the west and are more religious and more conservative. But there is surprisingly little hard data.
We decided to ask 15- to 21-year-olds in 20 developed and developing countries across the world the same questions about their lives, religious beliefs and views on international issues*. Above all, we wanted to know whether these so-called millennium babies (often known as Generation Z) have a common vision of the world. Or do geography, culture and nation matter more?
We first asked whether young people were happy with their lives. We found that in emerging economies young people tend to be far happier than in the west: 90 per cent of Indonesians and 78 per cent of Nigerians said they were happy compared with just 57 per cent in Britain and France.
They also tend to be more optimistic. The countries with the highest proportions of young people who think the world is getting better are China, India and Nigeria; those where the highest proportion think the world is getting worse are France and Italy. The emerging economy exceptions were Argentina and Brazil, where young people are as gloomy about the future as they are in Europe.
One question the survey throws up is why happiness and optimism levels tend to be so much higher in most emerging economies than in the west. Perhaps a country’s direction of travel is more important than its current economic position. In Europe and the US, living standards are higher than in much of the developing world, but Europeans and Americans have a sense of lost glories as their lifestyles are threatened by global competition.
Young people in emerging economies are emphatic supporters of liberal values — even when those values run contrary to the laws of their country. In India and China more than half of young people think that same-sex marriage should be legal. Around three-quarters of young people in India, Brazil and China support equal rights for transgender people — more than in France and Japan.
Overwhelmingly, young people believe that men and women should be treated equally — with the greatest support for such values in the very different societies of Canada and China. Even in India, more than nine out of 10 young people support the principle that men and women should be treated equally — marginally higher even than in the UK and the US. We can no longer generalise about conservative developing countries and more liberal developed countries.
For all the concern about religious conservatism and polarisation, it is heartening that two-thirds of young people have close friends from other religions, and less than a fifth say a person’s religion is an important factor when deciding whether or not to be friends with them. Even in countries where this figure is highest — for instance India (29 per cent) and Indonesia (31 per cent) — two-thirds do not think a person’s religion is an important consideration when forming friendships.
The old complaint that countries on the rise are too preoccupied with raising living standards to worry about climate change is not backed up by the data. Emerging economies are more concerned about climate change than many western countries. Nearly three-quarters of young Indians and two-thirds of Brazilians, Argentines and Nigerians list climate change as one of the factors that makes them most fearful for the future. As China has the largest carbon emissions of any country, it could matter that its young people are alone in regarding climate change as a greater global threat than extremism.
Equally, emerging economies showed the greatest support for legal migration. Indian and Chinese young people were the most likely to say that their government should make it easier for immigrants to live and work legally in their country. (Turkey is an exception. Under huge pressure from the Syrian refugee flows, it is the most negative country on legal migration). When we asked young people whether governments were doing enough to solve the global refugee crisis, those in Brazil and Argentina were the most likely across 20 countries to say they were doing too little.
As befits this first generation of digital natives, Generation Z places huge faith in technology to solve our future problems. In China, India and Indonesia more than 90 per cent of young people named technology as the factor that made them most hopeful for the future — more than in any western country. They are also more likely than young people in the developed world to worry about the consequences of children not receiving a good education.
Members of Generation Z born in emerging economies are more likely to travel and forge friendships in other countries — on and offline — than any previous generation. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that they broadly agree with their contemporaries in the west on a host of personal and political issues, with some notable exceptions (Nigeria is a category of its own for religious conservatism) and, if anything, are greater supporters of the international order. With the growth of nativism around the world, it’s reassuring to know that the generation who will inherit the earth are, in most part, liberal globalists.
*The poll was conducted by Populus, a UK-based research and strategy consultancy, between September 19 and October 26, 2016. Populus undertook 20,088 online surveys with young people aged 15 to 21 in 20 countries: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the UK and the US.
Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation.
This article appeared in the Financial Times Beyond Brics Blog on 8th February 2017. Further Op-Ed pieces appeared in Italy’s Corriere Della Sera; The Japan Times; and France’s Le Monde