Sunday, March 22, 2015

Have Australians become highly pessimistic about prospects for future generations?

On “Personal Reflections” last week Jim Belshaw mentioned a conversation with one of his daughters who said she and most of her generation had given up on the idea of home ownership because it was no longer an achievable dream. I would not be surprised if many young Australians hold such views these days.

Jim mentioned his conversation in the lead-in to his discussion of the results of some polling by Essential Research, which asked respondents whether they think that over the next 40 years various groups of people will be better off or worse off than they are today. The results are surprisingly negative. Apparently, only 14% think that retirees will be better off. The corresponding numbers for other groups are: 15% for the middle aged; 14% for families with school aged children; 18% for young adults and 24% for children.

I suspect that respondents may have been primed to be somewhat pessimistic in their responses by preceding questions which Essential asked in the survey. Those questions were about awareness of the Intergenerational Report, consequences of the changing population age structure and climate change.

The results of a poll conducted by Essential after last year’s budget are similarly pessimistic. The poll suggests that 21% of Australians think that the standard of living for the next generation will be better than today, 27% think it will be much the same and 48% think it will be worse (4% don’t know).

An Ipsos Mori survey, reported in The Guardian in April last year, asked a range of questions and seems to have obtained somewhat more optimistic responses. When all respondents were asked do “you feel that your generation will have had a better or worse life than your parents' generation”, 40% said better. Responses to that question by people under 30 were less optimistic: 30% said better. When all respondents were asked “do you feel that today's youth will have had a better or worse life than their parents' generation”, 30% said better. Again, responses by people under 30 were more pessimistic: only 22% considered that today’s youth would have a better life than their parents.

The Ipsos Mori (I.M.) survey suggests that Australians are more optimistic than people in most high income countries, although they are much less optimistic than people in China and some other countries experiencing rapid economic growth. A similar picture emerges from surveys by Pew Global which asked: “When children today in (survey country) grow up, do you think they will be better off or worse off financially than their parents?”. The Pew data is available for a larger number of countries and for both 2013 and 2014. Unfortunately data for Australia (and some other countries) was only collected for 2013.

The results of the I.M. and Pew surveys can be compared from data shown in the graph below. In constructing the indexes shown in the graph I assigned a value of 1 to “better”, -1 to “worse” and 0 to “same” and “don’t know” (and averaged the I.M. data when two years data was available).

In order to put some perspective on this data it would be desirable to compare it with earlier surveys. I have found some information on an international survey undertaken by the Angus Reid Group and reported in The Economist in August 1998.  The 16,000 adults included in the survey were asked about future prospects for themselves and their children, and the results were used to rank the 29 countries covered according to the optimism of their citizens.  Australia was ranked about the middle (14th).  Respondents in the United States and Britain were more optimistic (ranked 4th and 9th respectively) while those in France and Japan were less optimistic (ranked 28th and 29th respectively). 

That information is from a review I wrote of a book entitled Measuring Progress, edited by Richard Eckersley. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find the survey report or data table, but the article in The Economist indicates that only a quarter of Japanese expected their children to be better off than they were. That figure lies between the recent I.M. and Pew estimates.

An indication of the way optimism about the next generation changes over time with changes in economic conditions is provided in a review of by Journalist’s Resource. Pessimism about the standard of living of future generations fell during the 1990s and has since risen again to levels comparable to those in the early 1990s.

There is not a great deal of comfort in knowing that Australians are not as pessimistic about the prospects for future generations as are people in most other high income countries. The situation could easily get worse with a deterioration in economic prospects in Australia.

It is quite possible that people are mistaken in their pessimism about prospects for future generations, but perceptions can have an important influence on well-being and can also influence attitudes and behaviour. We should know more about why people are pessimistic and whether their perceptions are well founded. Recent reports by the Grattan Institute and the Foundation for Young Australians are relevant to this question and should probably be discussed on this blog in the near future.

Postscript 1:
I have just found my copy of the report of the 1998 Angus Reid Poll referred to above. It was filed away in a place where it was not difficult to find. I am amazed that on this occasion my filing system worked better than Google.

The survey was conducted in May/June 1998. The relevant question was: “all things considered, do you think your children will be better off or worse off than you?”. Apparently 57% of Australians thought that prospects for the next generation would improve, 22% thought they would get worse and 21% thought they would stay the same or were unsure. The corresponding numbers for the U.S. were 78%, 14% and 9%. At the optimistic end of the scale, corresponding numbers for China were 85%, 4% and 11%. Towards the pessimistic end, the corresponding numbers for France were 33%, 52% and 15%; and for Japan, 24%, 59% and 17%.

Postscript 2:
I have just come across some LSAY (Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth) data which suggests that young people in Australia are optimistic, despite their dissatisfaction with "the state of the economy' and "the way the country is run". In 2013 when their average age was 25.7, 90.1% of the Y03 cohort were happy with their career prospects, 96.3% were happy with their future, 59.9% were happy with the state of the economy and 53.6% were happy with the way the country is run. This group had remained consistently optimistic over the period from 2004 to 2013.

Postscript 3:
My attention has also been drawn to the annual survey of Australian youth conducted by Mission Australia. This captures views of young people on a range of issues, including their aspirations and views on how likely their aspirations are to be achieved. In 2014, there were 13,600 survey respondents aged 15-19 years. Respondents volunteer to take part in the survey in response to an invitation and an electronic link provided via schools.

Aspirations which respondents viewed as highly important (extremely important or very important) included: career success (87.4%); financially independence (86.1%) and home ownership (72.6%). Corresponding percentages viewing aspirations as highly likely to be achievable (extremely likely or very likely) were as follows: career success (55.9%); financial independence (65.5%) and home ownership (71.0%). I am not sure what counts as career success, but those numbers suggest to me that young Australians tend to be pessimistic about their chances of achieving financial independence and optimistic about their chances of home ownership.

Respondents were also asked how positive they felt about the future. In 2014, 63.8% of respondents felt positive or very positive about the future. The corresponding percentages for 2013 and 2012 were 67.5% and 70.6%. 


Jim Belshaw said...

Nice post, Winton. Will bring link up on my blog with a response.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Jim, I look forward to the discussion.