An Optimistic World

As I have pointed out in previous blog posts (see here and here), the world is becoming an increasingly better place to live, with many of the poorest nations experiencing the most dramatic improvement. From increasing incomes to lengthening life expectancies, hundreds of millions of people across the world are climbing out of poverty, malnutrition, and insecurity and enjoying lives of unprecedented prosperity.

Little wonder then that various surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center show that most developing-world citizens are optimistic about their futures and those of their children — although tellingly, the same cannot be said about their counterparts in wealthier parts of the world.


Pew observes that there is a correlation between the rate of economic growth and the level of optimism: the faster a country’s economy expanded, the more confident its people were about the future. Most developing countries (which include middle-of-the-world “developing economies” and fledging “emerging economies”)  have experienced significant growth and development in recent years, while their wealthier counterpart remain are mired in stagnation — hence the seemingly counterintuitive results. (There is a lot of complex psychology at work, too: people who are used to a certain standard of living, which they experience as declining, will feel worse about it than someone who is climbing out a bad state, even if the worse-off wealthier person is still better off than the improving poorer person. But that’s a whole separate issue for another post.)


About half or more in 16 of the 25 emerging markets surveyed say children in their nation will be better off financially than their parents, including at least seven-in-ten in Vietnam, China, Chile and Brazil. People in Middle Eastern emerging economies, however, are much more skeptical. In Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon, roughly a third or fewer say the nation’s children will be better off financially than their parents. Poles are also considerably pessimistic about the next generation’s opportunities, an outlook which may be influenced by the economic crisis in the European Union.

Developing economies are divided on this question. Roughly half or more in Bangladesh, Nicaragua, Senegal, Ghana and Uganda say their children will be more successful than the older generation. Fewer than four-in-ten agree in Tanzania, Kenya, El Salvador and the Palestinian territories.

Publics in advanced economies are the most pessimistic. In most of the high income countries surveyed, three-in-ten or fewer say the nation’s children will surpass their parents financially. Majorities in eight of the 10 countries believe the younger generation will be worse off. The French, Japanese and British are particularly downbeat about the future. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the same

The depressing outlook of developed world citizens aside, it is incredible to see so many of the world’s poor and newly middle class see so much hope in the future. It is all the more encouraging given that developing countries account for most of the world’s births and subsequent population growth.


Just as remarkable as this unbridled optimism is the fact that people are expressing confidence in their own nations and societies; the majority of respondents believed that young people could live a good life without moving abroad, which was historically the only viable path to success for many nationalities.


Though the reasons for progress vary from country to country, these results likely reflect an improvement in governance, whether it is greater democratization and accountability, the loosening of restrictions on civil liberties and economic activity, or more investment in infrastructure, public education, and healthcare. It may even reflect the growing resourcefulness of citizens to get around their nation’s’ difficult circumstances and shortcoming. Either way, these are encouraging signs.

Interestingly, in more than half of the countries surveyed, a majority or plurality of respondents took a fatalistic and deterministic view of success, believing that one’s lot in life is influenced largely by factors outside their control.

In most developing economies, majorities say success is determined by outside forces, including 74% in Bangladesh and 67% in Ghana. Nicaraguans are the least likely to agree among developing countries.

Majorities in 15 of the 25 emerging markets surveyed also think their fate is out of their hands, including six-in-ten or more in Turkey, Vietnam, South Africa, Malaysia, Poland, Lebanon and Nigeria. Latin American countries are generally the least likely among emerging markets to agree their future is determined by outside forces, including fewer than four-in-ten in Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela.

Meanwhile, in advanced economies, roughly half or fewer in six of the 10 countries surveyed agree that success is out of our control. Americans are the least likely to say they are not the masters of their fate (40%), one of the lowest percentages among the 44 countries surveyed.

This might tie into my comment about how better governance — and therefore better economic and political conditions — therefore contributed to a greater sense of opportunity and hope. Yet nevertheless, most respondents also agreed that a good education and work ethic were the key to improving their condition.


I am honestly not sure how to account for these contradictory results: how can one believe that success is out of their control, yet still think that hard work and an education can lead to success? The explanations delve into more philosophical and psychological territory than time and context permit, but I do think it reflects a sort of pragmatic middle ground: while most people acknowledge that there is a lot of luck involved when it comes to success (being born rich for example), they also know that there are still some things they can do to help. Plus, you might as well do the best you can, aside from accepting your lot in life. In any case, the sense of upward mobility — that one can indeed get ahead in life if they work at it — is a positive development given the history of deeply rooted and strict social hierarchy that defined most societies across the world.

Finally, we get to one of the biggest and most heated topics across the globe: inequality. Once again, we see some interesting results, especially in the developing and emerging economies where the gap between rich and poor is often widest and most pronounced.

A global median of 60% say that the gap between rich and poor is a very big problem in their country. Concern is somewhat higher among developing economies and emerging markets (median of 60% in each), but is also shared by people in advanced economies (56%).

Nonetheless, despite this high level of worry about inequality, the issue only ties or tops the list of economic problems in four of the 44 countries surveyed. In general, people in advanced economies tend to worry more about public debt and unemployment than inequality, while those in emerging markets and developing economies are more concerned about inflation and jobs. (For more on views about economic issues, see this September Pew Research report)

As far as the root of the problem, advanced economies were more likely to blame their governments than developing and emerging economies, which were more divided  on the issue.


Given that government is widely perceived as the culprit behind inequality, it is unsurprising that most respondents believed that less state intervention — namely in the form of taxation — is a key solution.


Tying into this overall cynicism towards government is fairly robust support worldwide for a free market economy. (Although within some countries, such as Peru, Greece, France, and Nigeria, wealthier and more educated people were more likely to be pro-free market than poorer and less educated ones.)


It remains to be seen how buoyant global spirits will be in the new future. Perhaps optimism will prove to be a self fulfilling prophecy, inspiring the sort of innovation, creativity, and social change that will lead to more good progress — and with that, more optimism. Or perhaps there is still more work to be done before we start celebrating. Regardless, this is a welcomed trend in a world in dire need of hope, and a good sign of just how far the world has come in alleviating suffering.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s