As the mother of three adult children, I am wired to be interested in their particular thoughts about life, and more generally, the views of their generation.
Does their generation see the world the same way I did at their ages? The answers are not encouraging. They are disheartening. A survey conducted earlier this year by UNICEF and Gallup of 21,000 people in 21 different nations throughout the world found stark differences not only between generations but between different parts of the world. My generation of Americans believed that we would be healthier and wealthier than our parents' generation, and for the most part, those beliefs have proven true. By and large, we are more educated than our parents, have enjoyed higher incomes and look forward to longer life expectancies.
Our kiddos and their kiddos are less optimistic, and some statistics bear out their thinking.
Of the six wealthiest nations in the world, including the United States, only about a third of young people believe they will be better off financially than their parents. What's more, they no longer believe that hard work alone will get them where they want to go or that everyone starts at the same place. Increasingly, they believe that family wealth and connections are significant success factors.
"On one hand, you want and need people to believe that they can make a difference in their own lives, but on the other hand, you need people to understand it's about more than just their own hard work," as Bob McKinnon, founder of a non-profit helping people understand influences in their lives says, in the New York Times. According to UNICEF and Gallup, older folks of my generation believe this as well. Moreover, many younger people believe quite rightly that earlier generations, including mine, have compromised our environment at best and destroyed it at worst.
Interestingly, these lines of thought are more prevalent in wealthier, more developed nations, most of them in the northern hemisphere. Young people in less developed countries, mainly below the equator, are more hopeful than Americans of their generation.
Around two-thirds of young people below the equator believe that they will be better off economically than their parents have been and that the world is becoming a better place with each new generation. They are more likely to believe that they have control over their lives through hard work and education. As Kenyan Lorraine Nduta, 21, put it in The Times, "we do not get to choose our families or social status, but that has never been a hindrance for anyone to succeed ... In fact, I think when you have less, it fuels you to seek more. The power to change any situation lies with us — hard work, consistency and discipline."
It isn't easy to imagine such sentiments coming from many young Americans in 2021.
Every generation from time immemorial is formed by its times, its culture, its geography and an individual's circumstances. Every generation believes itself unique, and the hope for a better life for the next generation still exists, even if it seems to be slipping from the grasp of some in certain parts of the world.
What stands out in this survey is that the traditional American Dream, long a standard for both Americans and people in other nations, needs some work.
It remains true that hard work and education can lift young people, but the cynicism and anxiety surfacing in our young people is worrisome.