The kids, one might say, are not alright. In fact, they’re rather skeptical about their own futures. The Credit Suisse Youth Barometer, now in its fourth year, surveyed 1,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 25 in Brazil, Switzerland, the U.S., and, for the first time, Singapore, about their goals, problems and political views. Their answers painted a picture of a generation in which many want a home of their own and children, just as their parents did, but worry about their job prospects. The respondents are proud of their countries, but – with the exception of Switzerland – also overwhelmingly want to see them change for the better. And perhaps most importantly, they are growing less optimistic with each passing year.
Confidence has clearly fallen in the United States, where only 50 percent of those surveyed feel optimistic about their futures – 6 percentage points lower than the previous year. Just 45 percent of Singaporean youth rate their prospects positively. Switzerland’s optimism is more firmly rooted – the 65 percent rate of optimism there reflected a mere 1-percentage-point dip from last year. And while Brazil continues to exhibit the highest level of optimism, the 68 percent of young people who are confident about the future was 5 percentage points lower than last year.
In large part, the growing pessimism stems from concerns in all four countries about unemployment. In the U.S. (54 percent) and Singapore (42 percent), job scarcity is the greatest worry of all; in Brazil it ranks second (42 percent) and in Switzerland, third (32 percent). That concern, in turn, has young people focused on savings instead of consumption. If they received a surprise windfall, Swiss youth would set aside 25 percent of it, while their U.S. counterparts would sock away a full 37 percent. The young people are also concerned about paying their bills, with 26 percent of respondents in the U.S. and Brazil reporting having personal loans, as well as 17 percent in Singapore. The Swiss, it seems, don’t borrow as much: only 4 percent of those surveyed said they have outstanding debts.
Although youth has historically been a time to rebel against authority, the majority of the respondents are proud of their countries. A staggering 83 percent of young Swiss said they were, as well as 67 percent of Americans and 74 percent of Singaporeans. In what appeared to be a reflection of the political and social undercurrents that caused large protests earlier this year, Brazil was the exception, with only 39 percent of youth reporting a sense of national pride. That may explain why just one-third of Swiss respondents wanted political reform, compared to 65 percent in Singapore, 73 percent in the U.S., and a whopping 80 percent in Brazil.
Below, The Financialist offers a more in-depth look at what young people are thinking in each of the four countries, including several interviews with local experts who have a finger on the pulse of youth culture. – Simon Brunner
UNITED STATES: Risk-Averse and Pessimistic
The United States is one of the world’s youngest industrialized countries, with a median age of 36.9, but Credit Suisse’s survey reveals little youthful swagger. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed feel the political system needs some sort of fundamental reform, and a full one-third have a “rather bleak” view of their society’s future. Unemployment among young people in the U.S. is 16.4 percent, more than double the 7.3 percent overall jobless rate.
Still, 70 percent of those surveyed say they are working toward owning a home. Trying new things and exploring the world (66 percent) are slightly more popular aspirations than pursuing a career (62 percent). The desire to have lots of money (56 percent) just exceeds the desire to obtain an advanced degree (53 percent).
America’s youth say they want work-life balance, a solid income, and a satisfying personal life, but few believe it is possible to work your way to the top, and most see their jobs merely as a means to achieve financial security. “These times are making young Americans feel insecure,” says Lukas Golder, of the GfS.bern Research Institute. However, “they have not begun to despair yet – thus far, they are merely skeptical.” — Simon Staufer
SINGAPORE: Ethnic Anxieties and a Foreign Threat
The Credit Suisse Youth Barometer shows that the youth of Singapore are much more religious than, say, their Swiss contemporaries. Around one-fifth of those surveyed visit a temple, mosque or church at least once a week, while only 6 percent say they never do. Sociology professor Ho Kong Chong explains that religion is linked closely to ethnic identity, an ever-present issue in the diverse city-state. The majority of Malays are Muslim; most Indians are Hindu, and Chinese, who make up three-quarters of the population, mostly consider themselves Buddhist or Taoist.
Many young Singaporeans are worried about their futures – specifically, unemployment, inflation and earning too little to cover the high cost of living. And they’re blaming outsiders as much as they are themselves. Singapore’s population has grown 65 percent in the last 20 years, and one-third of the country’s 5.4 million residents hold a foreign passport. In the survey, more than two-thirds of respondents say the presence of foreigners in the city-state is causing problems such as increasing housing prices.
Young people also worry about foreign competition for jobs. Singaporeans, who desire work-life balance, find themselves up against well-educated immigrants from the likes of China and India who are more willing to work long hours and weekends. Deferring to these concerns, the governing party recently tightened entry requirements for foreign workers, and politicians take every opportunity to repeat the populist slogan: “Singaporeans First.” – Ruth Bossart
SWITZERLAND: Apolitical, Non-Religious and Better Off Than Most
Compared with Brazil, the U.S., and Singapore, Swiss youth aspire more to intangible personal development and less toward public recognition. They are critical about limitations on individual freedoms and personal development, and assign more importance to their family and friends than young people elsewhere. They appreciate the advantages of their social, political, and economic situation, but are nevertheless aware of threats to their lifestyle. So says Markus Freitag, the director of the Institute of Political Science at the University of Berne, whom journalist Michael Krobath asked for his thoughts on the state of mind of Swiss youth.
Michael Krobath: Worries among Swiss youth about foreigners and integration have grown over the last three years. Why?
Markus Freitag: In short, a more challenging economic environment has threatened individuals’ economic status. And those threats are both direct – through competition for housing or jobs – and indirect – through financing and covering the increasing costs of the integration of immigrants.
MK: Young Swiss still feel that making an effort is worthwhile and professional dreams can come true. What is working better here than elsewhere?
MF: Overall, the labor market structure in Switzerland corresponds better to the educational offerings. In addition, the dual system of professional education seems to offer a certain level of security. Even young people with less schooling have an opportunity to get jobs with reasonable pay.
BRAZIL: Insisting on Change
Eighty-two million people under the age of 24 live in Brazil – about 41 percent of the total population. Youth unemployment stands at almost 18 percent, three times the overall unemployment rate. Because the murder rate is exceptionally high compared to other countries, homicide is the most frequent cause of death for young Brazilians.
Because the country is in the throes of social change that are starkly different than those in the other three countries surveyed, journalist Sandro Benini sat down with Brazilian philosopher José Arthur Giannotti to talk about the challenges facing the youth of Brazil.
Sandro Benini: In June, protests brought up to a million people into the streets, but the demonstrations died down quickly over the summer. Did that surprise you?
José Arthur Giannotti: Social protests always come in waves. This is completely normal. No one would expect so many people to protest for months at a time. What is important is the fact that the demonstrations took place at all and that they conveyed the deep frustration prevalent in all regions. Now it remains to be seen how the political system will react to it.
SB: There were a great many young people among the demonstrators. Why are they dissatisfied?
JAG: For starters, the country’s infrastructure is so poor – the public transportation system, the health system and the schools are all in urgent need of revitalization. Not only do young people feel excluded from politics, their daily experiences show them that almost all state institutions are inadequate and corrupt. The fact that the education system functions so badly is particularly worrisome for young people. The universities are not educating enough engineers and other technical personnel, and the teachers in secondary schools and high schools are poorly educated themselves. In international education comparisons, Brazil’s youth always occupy the lowest ranks.
SB: Young Brazilians are more religious and not as materialistic as those in other countries – but at the same time, they are hedonistic. Does this surprise you?
JAG: No, not at all. Between 2003 and 2011, when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was in office, around 30 million people rose from poverty to the middle class thanks to the raw materials boom, social programs and higher wages. This triggered a huge wave of enthusiasm for consumption. The state fanned the flames by making loans more easily available. Home ownership, a car, and a career: these are all important to Brazil’s youth because they are all part of a way of life that, until recently, seemed unattainable for many. But anyone who bought a car in recent years soon discovered that getting around the cities with it was impossible because they spent hours stuck in traffic. That makes it easy to hold on to a healthy skepticism about materialism.