“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”
― Mark Twain
A recently issued survey conducted by IPSOS MORI reveals that, the majority of adults in countries that have been at the forefront of economic development in the latter half of the twentieth century believe that the next generation of young people will experience a worse life than their parents and previous generations. By contrast, those from the so-called BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) as well as Turkey who have experienced considerable economic growth in recent years feel that there is an optimistic future ahead of their children.
In the survey 16,000 adults were asked: “To what extent, if at all, do you feel that today’s youth will have had a better or worse life than their parents’ generation?” 42% responded that life would be worse, compared with just 34% who thought it would be better. A further disaggregation of the statistics indicates that in China there is a high level of optimism with 81% of respondents believing that the lives of the youngest generation will be better than their own. This contrasts with countries that have experienced negative growth rates and continuing austerity measures in recent years, where positive responses fall to as low as 16% in Spain, 13% in Belgium and just 7% in France. In Britain, a country similarly gripped by economic difficulties just 20% of today’s adults think that the next generation of adults will have a better life than their parents, with 54% believing that their situation will be worse.
Statistics can, of course, tell us a great deal, but the interpretation of such figures is always a challenge (at least I find them so). Perhaps we should consider how lives have changed in the various countries mentioned in this report in order to ensure that we can reflect properly on what is being indicated. In my own country I have no doubt that my life has been far more comfortable than that of my parents and certainly significantly improved on that of my grandparents or great grandparents. Like many of my generation I was the first member of my family to benefit from the opportunity to obtain an education beyond the age of 16. I was brought up in a period of unprecedented economic growth with significant developments in health care and national infrastructure and in a country which was largely peaceful and secure. By contrast my grandparents’ generation lived through two world wars, a great depression and a period where disease such as tuberculosis and rickets was still relatively common. In the UK life expectancy is now 81 years and rises to 83 years in Australia and as high as 86.4 years in Japan, figures which indicate a marked rise from the beginning of the twentieth century when in the UK these were 47 years for a man and 50 for a woman.
In the BRICS countries we can see unprecedented economic growth, though some indicators of prosperity remain relatively low. Life expectancy figures in these countries are 76.2 years in Brazil, 70 in Russia and India and 73.4 in China. According to figures from UNICEF in India 90 million females remain non-literate and around 20 per cent of children aged 6 to14 are still not in school. UNICEF figures also show that in India 56 children in every 1,000 born does not live beyond the age of 5, in Brazil and China this figure is 14 and in Russia 10. This contrasts with Australia and the UK with 5 children in 1,000 failing to reach the age of 5 years and Japan where the figure is 3.
Of course we could play around with statistics all day and behave like politicians in being selective about those we choose to use. It does seem to me, however, that there are two important considerations we should take. Firstly, it may be appropriate that those countries that have suffered social and economic hardship for so many generations now have an opportunity to prosper. When matching the optimism of adults in the BRICs nations to the apparent pessimism elsewhere perhaps we need to recognise that comparisons are invidious when not all are coming from the same baseline. A marked improvement in the lives of people in many countries may still leave them falling well short of the life style and opportunities that those of us living in more wealthy nations have experienced. Secondly, I wonder to what extent the reported optimism of people in the BRICS nations is truly representative of these countries as a whole. As an occasional visitor to India (I have never been to the others on this list) I have certainly seen over the last 15 years many people who have become richer and significant improvements in housing, health and infrastructure. However, I still see individuals living in abject poverty and now fear that the gap between the wealthiest and poorest in the country is growing rapidly.
I do hope that the IPSOS MORI poll provides a justified cause for celebration that the lives of people in socially and economically disadvantaged situations are now improving. Whilst I would obviously hope that my own grandchildren will have opportunities as great as those that I have experienced, it may be that a balancing of the distribution of wealth is about due. Is it right that we should remain in relative comfort and not wish for those who continue to struggle for the most basic day to day necessities of living to see improvements in their lives?
Commenting on the IPSOS MORI poll, Ángel Gurría, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stated that:
“Nothing is more explosive, more dangerous and more destabilising than having a whole generation of frustrated young people.”
Is it not strange that such statements are being made only now when this is perceived as a problem faced by those countries that have been economically advantaged for so many years? Was this not a factor in those countries which for so long were denied an opportunity to enjoy the benefits that we have come to expect? Perhaps the young people who have lived so much of their life in hardship have been compliant for too long.