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The Shape and Size of Wellbeing

Youth attitudes towards the future are increasingly polarised across the world. Could demographic change provide us with an answer as to why?

Images: Silvanus Solomon, Turgut Kirkgoz,
Ebrart, Angela Roma, andy Song & Danya Gutan

Within contemporary wellbeing research lies a conundrum: while developed countries tend to score relatively highly on wellbeing indexes, their youth are rather pessimistic about their future wellbeing. Youth in developing countries, on the other hand, tend to be significantly more optimistic.

Such findings were first discovered in a 2018 study by IPSOS Public Polling concerning differences in global youth attitudes, where over 90% of teenagers in Kenya, Mexico, China, Nigeria and India reported feeling hopeful for the future. This unexpected optimism was in stark contrast to those in developed nations, with teenagers in Sweden and France trailing the ranking.

When the study was first released, I recall seeing clusters of red and orange blotching the surface of infographics at my Copenhagen-based office desk. I thought of Denmark’s status as one of the world’s happiest countries in wellbeing indexes. The coexistence of jaded nihilism and rabid anxiety in Gen Z as I knew them. Teenaged Parisians and Stockholmers languishing in the trenches of climate anxiety, economic uncertainty, and social media-induced loneliness, contrasted with the thought that maybe the youth of Lagos and New Delhi felt differently. Perhaps an indescribable feeling of agency – that the future belonged to them.

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Although the study was not global in its scope (a total of 15 countries were surveyed), in the six years since, a pandemic and several geopolitical crises have unfolded, and its findings have been replicated in more recent studies that reflect a similar pattern. The outlook of youth in developed countries is probably not any rosier now. Talk of the upward trajectory of the Global South’s influence, on the other hand, has only been on the rise. Divergent perspectives on global crises within the United Nations have become more apparent, as evidenced by contrasting reactions to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Palestine conflict in 2023. This trend is further underscored by the burgeoning influence of BRICS nations and the gradual shift of global wealth towards the southern hemisphere.

At first, the answer might seem obvious: over the past twenty years, many countries in the Global South have undergone rapid rates of urbanisation and economic development, shortening the generational points of comparison for what life ‘used to be like’. Darrell Bricker, CEO of IPSOS Public Polling and author of An Empty Planet, reaffirms this notion: “I think in developed countries, it’s young people comparing themselves to what their parents achieved, while in the developing ones, it’s to what their parents simply didn’t have.”

But that’s not the whole story. Bricker’s area of expertise is demographics – the study of populations. He’s a firm believer in the idea that in order to gauge a people’s values, you simply look at their collective shape. “I look at things like technology, culture, politics, and economics as being a manifestation of what’s going to happen because of demographic change – it almost being the independent variable driving all these other dependent variables,” says Bricker.

Viewing the initial 2018 study through the lens of demographic change, a narrative begins emerging. Youth pessimism in developed countries can ultimately be attributed to their aging populations, as young people feel that their voices are being squeezed out of politics. Bricker elaborates further, arguing that “Generational tensions will be driven by the fact that you’ve got this group of young people – which is not as big or young as a lot of people assume that it is – feeling that they’ve been left out. Even if they are innovative or expanding their skillset, opportunities are not going to come as easily as they did to their parents or grandparents.” The relatively young populations in emerging economies, on the other hand, give youth a greater sense of political agency in a rapidly changing societal landscape – regardless of lower levels of democratic institutions.

However, if these apparent changes in youth optimism are driven merely by population pyramids and the march of economic development, aren’t tomorrow’s youth in developing countries headed for a similar fate? Bricker thinks so, arguing that such changes are already taking place in the developing world: “In these areas of the world, there’s a lot of kids, mainly because infant mortality has collapsed, but the other thing we see is that they’re following the same pattern as in developed countries in that fertility is rapidly declining.”

Until then, the demographic tides will steadily wash up on the shores of the developed world, resulting in the inevitable consequence of gerontocracy – the rule of the elderly. These societies are due for a significant realignment of their status as global innovators and youthful, unbridled optimism, argues Bricker.

In the conclusion of An Empty Planet, Bricker predicts that “the really exciting theatre, the truly groundbreaking innovations, the revolutionary new thinking in the last decades of this century will more likely come from Lagos or Mumbai than from Paris or Tokyo.” Perhaps it’s this impending spur of innovative spirit that is fuelling the optimism in the youth of the developing world today. “If innovation is a young person’s game, then these regions have got the edge,” Bricker re-affirms.

The process of ranking different countries along lines of wellbeing or happiness using measurable data first began with the establishment of intergovernmental organisations such as the UN. That is, wellbeing research boomed as populations did too – especially in the developed world. Given that fertility rates continue to plummet, can we say anything about how demographics might shape the future of wellbeing in these societies?

“I tend not to be a futurist in the sense of being able to project what I think is going to happen because of technological change or economic change; every time I start thinking that way, I think back to the movies of the 1930s about what the ‘great future’ would consist of. Demographics though, that’s clockable. All the decisions have been made, and we’re just going to have to live through them. You can mark it on your calendar,” Bricker says. Some of the issues in store for future generations, both in the developed and developing world (albeit in different time frames), will consist of reassessing many of the values that currently bind their social fabric together.

Take growth, for example. Much of the developed world’s economic framework rests on the assumption of perpetual growth, aided by a steady level of consumption. The problem with an aging population, however, is that it tends to be the opposite of consumptive. “Now there’ll people who celebrate that,” Bricker tells me, “But the truth is without consumption, there is no economic growth. Who’s going to buy the cars? Old people don’t do that. Real estate? No, they tend to sell it. In terms of public services, they are in the hoarding stages of their life.” Add to that a soaring demand for those very public services, and there’s a great problem at hand. “Dealing with Alzheimer’s is another example. There’s going to be an explosion of Alzheimer’s unless we find some kind of a cure. And who is set up to do that? No country is,” says Bricker.

An objection often raised against the supposed ‘iron law’ of demographics is the role of culture. Several scholars argue that the collectivism underpinning much of the developing world can explain the high levels of optimism in their societies. The individualist cultures of the West, however, push societies towards being atomised. Mohsen Joshanloo, a cross-cultural psychologist and associate professor at Keimyung University in South Korea, agrees – but also thinks the picture is a bit more complex. “Cultural beliefs and values also play an important role [beyond demographics]. However, I don’t think that collectivism itself offers explanatory value in this context,” Joshanloo says. Instead, he believes that two other key values can explain why the youth of the developing world may tend towards optimism: religiosity and fatalism.



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“In general, religions cultivate positive attitudes among adherents about what lies ahead. They often promote the belief that a higher power supports the believer and religious community. Fatalistic beliefs also often paint an upbeat picture of the future, foretelling good luck or positive turns of fate. These perspectives emphasise the possibility of changing negative outcomes through intentional action (such as praying to ask for divine intervention or making donations to improve one’s destiny),” Joshanloo says. Combined, these values likely help contribute to increased optimism by providing a positive narrative and sense of control over the future.

While a cross-cultural analysis may point toward answers for the developing world’s relative optimism today, its argumentative strength is lacking when concerning the future. Joshanloo recognises that religiosity and fatalism were core components of the developed world until not long ago, expecting the emerging economies to eventually follow suit. “Modernisation, fuelled by technological advances, improved health care, ensured a robust legal framework, and improved public infrastructure, while reducing reliance on fatalistic attitudes or divine intervention to cope with life’s uncertainties. Increased access to education and scientific knowledge may also challenge the relevance of supernatural beliefs,” he says.

I ask Joshanloo whether this might only be the case when thinking of ‘economic development’ under certain ideological conditions, such as liberal capitalism or socialism. He admits to slight doubt – perhaps it could swing the other way. “Predicting the trajectory of optimism amidst rising GDP is difficult. The persistent presence of religiosity in developing countries contradicts assumptions of its rapid decline and highlights the enduring role of faith in these societies. Despite economic progress, the consoling effects of fatalistic and religious beliefs may enable their persistence within the region’s cultural fabric.”

This seems unlikely, given that the developed countries first on track towards demographic collapse are all, in fact, highly collectivist cultures where religiosity and fatalism ruled only half a century ago. As of 2022, South Korea has the lowest fertility rate in the world, with an average of 0.73 births per woman that is predicted to drop to 0.65 by 2025.

The country’s speed-run through Western-led industrialisation and progress catapulted it into becoming an economic bastion of East Asia. Yet, it has also irreversibly transformed the fabric of its people. The country is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness, has the highest suicide rate in the OECD, and polarising political attitudes between young men and women are stark. In fact, a 2024 investigation by the Financial Times found that, in line with several other aging developed countries, Gen Z Korean men have become far more conservative, while women more progressive, compared to their equivalent age-groups since 2000. This, too, can be viewed through the lens of population shrinkage: as women become increasingly educated, economically self-sufficient, and socially progressive, many choose to not start a family – something a percentage of men seem to be deeply at odds with.

Countries like South Korea, Japan, and, to an extent, China, can be seen as canaries in a coal-mine of a global population bust. Taking a bit of metaphorical liberty, we can view rates of youth pessimism across the developed world as a salient warning against the impending consequences of population pyramids inverting worldwide. Gen Z being regionally ‘doom-pilled’, not only because of the existential crises threatening humanity, but the more immediate sense that a paradigm shift is occurring right under their feet. A sense that the world their ancestors set up – its institutions, social codes, and structures – will be insufficient or even counterproductive in addressing the problems of the future.

Bricker closes our interview by highlighting the shift in public interest he has experienced concerning the idea of population collapse over the past few years. “When John and I were working on Empty Planet, no one was asking these questions. Now the questions are less so ‘How can you guys say this?’, and more along the lines of, ‘Okay, what are the consequences of this?’ There’s been this gradual acceptance of this idea that the global population inversion is what our future is. Now there are still some people who argue that it’s not, or that it will be a lot smaller. But the population shrinkage we said that would happen in An Empty Planet, well, we’re now saying that we were wrong – it’s happening much faster than we suggested.”

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