Pessimism and the Future Leaders Survey

Emily Horn in the ByTowne Cinema

Increasingly, there seems to be a strong correlation between a young person’s level of education and their level of pessimism. Arguably, this is on account of the related correlation between education level and level of interest and engagement with current events. Somebody who never watches the news or picks up a newspaper just has less to worry about.

A recent British survey has produced some numbers that support the pessimism hypothesis. The Future Leaders Survey polled 25,000 applicants to British universities. The findings demonstrate a widespread anticipation of a worsening world:

Asked about likely outcomes for humanity by 2032, the responses are gloomy to say the least. Nine out of 10 surveyed think Africa will still be starving and oil will be prohibitively expensive, and eight in 10 expect more terrorism and the effects of climate change to be hitting hard. Inequality within the U.K. and between rich and poor nations will have worsened, according to around 70 percent of those surveyed. Half expect nuclear weapons will have been used again and that the U.S. will still be in Iraq.

16% of respondents said that they expected humanity to go extinct within a century; 78% of respondents said that could only be avoided through radical lifestyle changes. Admittedly, these are people who are just starting out at university, so it doesn’t demonstrate much about the linkage between education and pessimism. It would be quite interesting to have the same group re-polled in four years time. It would not surprise me if they were significantly more dispirited the second time.

One has to wonder whether this makes today’s society an aberration. Surely, history has been full of people who never really expected the world to change, one way or the other. Periods of history have also included large numbers of people believing that big improvements were possible or even inevitable. I am not sure if the kind of apocalyptic feeling spreading through the most influential segments of the most powerful states has much precedent. One can only speculate about what the long-term consequences might be.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

11 thoughts on “Pessimism and the Future Leaders Survey”

  1. I think the thing you mis understand about the current age is this is the age when knowledge is representational, when it isn’t knowledge of the world but models of the world, inferences, seperated by a gap. The gap is the hamster – we believe in global warming but it’s ok because we might be wrong about it. There is no reason to believe that just because someone claims to believe something that they actually believe it. Neither is there good reason to believe that because I think I believes something that I really believe it. There are therefore two gaps – the believe belief/belief gap, and the word/thing gap, both insurmountable (one because of the subconscious, one because of representation).

    I would assert that it is these gaps that make the world appear as if this is the age when people know a transformation is occuring. When, in fact, people believe about the same that people always do – you look out the window, nothing’s changed.

    I predict radical changes when global warming starts having devestating effects. When believed-belief becomes real-belief, all of the changes that are virtual today will become actual. This is something I think that film about dystopic future england where reproduction has ended, understands.

  2. New results released by NASA from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) which has been surveying the 3K microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang:

    * The age of the universe is now known to unprecedented accuracy: 13.73 billion years old, +/- 120 million.

    * Spacetime is flat to within a 2% error margin.

    * Ordinary matter and energy account for only 4.62% of the universe’s total.

  3. I agree that they don’t really believe what they are saying, in their hearts of hearts.

    If they did, a lot more people would be building machine-gun defended enclaves in the woods.

  4. Furthermore, an understanding of current problems should not necessarily translate into a defeatist attitude towards them. I am one of the most bitter, cynical people I know, but I don’t just shrug my shoulders-humanity’s bullshit generally just makes me want to work harder.

    Because if you have an optimistic outlook, why should you personally work to fix all these problems? If things are going to improve on their own well then you should just sit back and enjoy the ride right?

  5. Re. this post, I don’t really agree that previous ages have been less aware of change or have been any less pessimistic.

    Change in history always feels faster when you are at it’s epicentre- ie. from the perspective of people living at a given time. And there has always been a tendency to look back on previous times (interestingly, usually periods of time immediately preceding the present) as some sort of golden age.

    A combination of these phenomena has usually led to two possible repsonses, or a combination thereof, that broadly align to conservatism and progressivism. The former tries to slow change and recreate the aforementioned golden age. The latter accepts change, but dislikes it’s consequences, and instead seeks to adapt to reproduce similar social outcomes in the new context.

    Looking back on the history of the United Kingdom, we can see this at work for most of the last few centuries. Just think about the enlightenment theorists who emerged on the back of, not ahead of, the industrial revolution, or the nostalgic Romantics, the reforming Victorians, 1848, the nihlists, those living between the wars, 1968, or almost any time since the 1980s. All of these episodes or movements have been repsonses to an almost giddy sense of the gathering pace of change and the social consequences of this.

    That said, it is perhaps better for people to be ignorant of this artefact of history. The above analysis almost makes one feel relaxed about our current condition and the inevitable human responses that will follow. But it is arguable that each subsquent generation has to feel the panic of standing in the motorway to actually produce the various fixes and changes that history tells us are sure to follow.

  6. Claire,

    A very interesting comment! The psychology required to overcome the problems facing us is a pretty important issue, and one that must tie into the strategies of everyone seeking to achieve progressive or sustainable outcomes.

  7. Most of the research so far about generation Z suggests that youngsters today are less hedonistic, better behaved and more lonely than ever before. A recent report by Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, reinforces that finding and sheds more light on this new cohort’s hopes and fears. In late 2018 Pew polled 920 Americans aged 13-17 about the problems that they have seen among their peers. The data show that they are far less concerned about age-old teenage problems like unplanned pregnancy and binge-drinking than they are about mental health. Fully 70% of respondents thought anxiety and depression were a major issue among their peers. Teenagers from poorer households tended to report a wider range of behavioural problems than those from rich households, but concerns about mental health seemed to affect both groups equally.

    What is causing such widespread stress and dejection among the young? One answer might be that social media have made teenagers feel more isolated from their friends and tormented by their peers. More than half of those surveyed by Pew cited bullying as a major problem. Another reason might be academic worries. Members of generation Z, even more so than the millennials before them, seem to have less desire to get wasted and more to get top grades. Two-thirds of respondents to Pew’s survey said that they feel no pressure at all to get drunk, whereas nine-tenths feel under the cosh when it comes to doing well at school.

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