Global Trends 2020

The optimism divide

One of the overarching themes emerging from this year’s report is a sense of anxiety. Globally, we find 79% saying the “world is changing too fast”. The British are the least likely to say this, but even here there are still six in ten who are worried about the pace of change.

This is not just a matter of things moving so quickly that we can’t keep track with, say, the latest fashions or smartphones. People are actually worried. As many as 82% of us feel we “live in an increasingly dangerous world”. This feeling can be observed across many countries – and it is accelerating. Such sentiments are held even more widely than they were in the 2014 survey, even as actual violence remains in decline.

On the face of it, it’s hard to feel too positive. Looking ahead to the coming year, just 28% feel optimistic about prospects for the world in general.

Optimism about the world in general

When we crunch the numbers, we do find big differences in the data in terms of who is feeling positive, and who is not. Here are five patterns.

1. Location, location, location: rural vs the big city

The world continues to see a shift to urban centres. This is not necessarily to say that rural populations are the ‘left behinds’, but they are certainly gloomier than their counterparts in the big cities. In both Britain and America, Brexit and Trump were victories for small towns and rural areas against metropolitan areas.

2. Marital status

Those who are married are more likely to have a sunnier outlook on the world, particularly when compared with those who are coping with divorce or becoming widowed. This is entirely consistent with hundreds of other studies, but reminds us how much of a role having a significant other in our lives can play.

3. The optimism of youth

The older you become, the more pessimistic about the future of the world you’ll get – a pattern that is common everywhere, although personal happiness rises in old age.

4. North versus South

This is the big divide: despondency in established economies is tempered by a generally optimistic state of mind in the emerging markets. The difference is stark.

5. Religion matters

Those who say religion matters to them are far more optimistic than atheists and agnostics. However, optimists may be attracted to religion, and pessimists cynical towards it, but it is, of course, more complicated than that. It certainly suggests that in the West (which contains most of the world’s atheists), rediscovering religion – or perhaps philosophy – might help people feel
more positive and confident.

All is not lost

As we’ve seen, many people are actually positive about how the world is changing. And with all this change comes new possibilities.

For example, 76% agree that “technology is making our lives better”. Half the world’s population believe that “eventually all medical conditions and diseases will be curable”. What’s more, when we get people to think about their own lives, they are much more positive.

The ‘Lost Generation’ to come

This year’s survey includes a dedicated section looking at how people think the experiences of “today’s youth” will compare to those of their parents. These questions explicitly look to the future, while getting people into a more analytical frame of mind – by getting them to compare the likely experience of today’s younger generation with those of their parents. We have distilled these findings into a ‘Future Optimism Index’. This is calculated by aggregating country-level responses to a suite of questions on the extent to which people felt “today’s youth” could expect a better standard of living than their parents.

The questions in the index cover a range of domains, including employment, access to information and education, safety from crime, opportunities for travel and home-ownership.

This shows that, if we get people to look to the future, thinking about what it might look like for their own families and communities, things are by no means as bad as some of the overall ‘global indicators’ suggest.

The world may be worried about many things, but, for many people, certainly in the emerging markets, the road ahead is still – on balance – one that brings rather more good things compared with what went before.


These three themes will have important implications for both politicians and marketers:

Understand people in their context: the more they think about their family and the local area, the more happy they are about how things are going. It’s the national and ‘world’ context that is causing the most anxiety.

A two-speed world: emerging markets are consistently more positive than the more developed markets.

Countries still matter: even accounting for emerging vs developing markets, there are big differences by country. The US is more optimistic than the UK, for example. And the Germans, while by no means excited about what the future may hold for their children, are in a very different place to their despondent French neighbours.

Simon Atkinson
Chief Knowledge Officer, Ipsos | @IpsosMORI

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