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Survey across 15 countries finds 90% of teenagers in Kenya, Mexico, China and Nigeria hopeful for the future – in stark contrast with those in developed nations
Teenagers in Kenya and Mexico are more optimistic about their future than those in France and Sweden, according to polling across 15 countries, which found young people in developing nations have more positive outlooks.
The survey, conducted by Ipsos and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found young people across all countries were more optimistic than adults, though there was widespread dissatisfaction with politicians.
More than nine in 10 teenagers in Kenya, Mexico, China, Nigeria and India reported feeling positive about their future. Their responses contrasted with those of young people in France and Sweden, the most pessimistic of countries surveyed.
Dr Alex Awiti, from Aga Khan University, who has researched youth attitudes across east Africa, said young people in the region are optimistic because they know that their voices count. “If young people want to mobilise, all the governments in east Africa could be toppled within a matter of days,” he said. “What is impressive is young people across east Africa really know what they want.” Awiti pointed to the large numbers of youth-led organisations in countries such as Kenya, where under-35s make up about 80% of the population. Young people are still, however, under-represented in politics.
Michael Birkjaer, an analyst for the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark, said the lasting impact of the financial crisis, and what he calls the loneliness epidemic in the west, may have influenced the responses of teenagers in Europe.
“Young people [in the west] are faced with these stories of millennials being the first generation not to do better than their parents and there’s perhaps an emerging, collective perception in the developed countries of scarcity of opportunities,” he said.
“In developing countries the social benchmark of the good life is perhaps perceived as more achievable,” he added.
In Nigeria, young people’s optimism is linked to their drive for social change, said Olasupo Abideen, a social activist and a global leader with the organisation Restless Development. “Young people believe in the Nigerian dream,” said Abideen. “We are trying to change the rhetoric around how Nigeria is being perceived. As a result we are always optimistic, we are focused and we have energy.”
Across the world, young people said they felt let down by political leaders. This was especially the case in Brazil and Nigeria, where three-quarters of respondents said they believed politicians didn’t care about people like them. This feeling was shared by around half of young people surveyed across the 15 countries, except in Saudi Arabia and India.
Teenagers from Nigeria and France were the least knowledgeable about politics, according to the survey of more than 7,000 young people aged 12 to 17, with only one in five people reporting that they know about government issues.
Abideen said that young people in Nigeria are interested in politics, but are excluded from participating in government. He recently lobbied for the Not Too Young To Run campaign, which called for a reduction in the minimum age to stand for elected office in Nigeria. Though not all demands were met, the age to run for office in the House of Representatives and House of Assembly was lowered from 30 to 25.
“We have always been told youth are the leaders of tomorrow, but the time is now,’ said Abideen. Though campaigners have made headway, the cost of running for office continues to exclude talented young leaders who do not have wealthy connections, he added.
In Great Britain, only 27% of young people claimed to be knowledgeable about politics or government, according to the survey. James Sloam, an expert in youth political participation at the University of Royal Holloway, said young people in the UK are put off by the political system. “Over here in the last election there was a massive youth vote for Labour and Jeremy Corbyn but it didn’t achieve anything because demographically the percentage of young people is much smaller,” he said.
Young people may choose other ways to engage with politics, Sloam explained, from petitions to demonstrations, or consumer politics, where customers choose products based on ethical or political principles with the aim of influencing the way a company or market behaves.
Three-quarters of young people in Great Britain were optimistic about their future, according to the poll, though less than two-thirds felt positive about the future of their country.
“You have to fight for your spot in here, but it’s hard, isn’t it?” Alfie, 14, from Dagenham, told the Guardian. Violence was a worry, and younger children don’t always feel safe playing outside. “You’ve got all these older kids that want to go around acid-attacking younger kids, robbing phones, robbing motorbikes. It just ruins it for the little ones.”
Across the 15 countries, Indian teenagers reported being the most politically literate, with 55% agreeing they knew about government. Young respondents in India were also the most likely to agree that life is better for men than women.
Women’s rights in India, and their safety, have been placed under greater scrutiny in recent years. A number of high-profile rape cases prompted mass protests and sparked debate about the country’s treatment of women. According to the survey, almost eight in 10 respondents said they were confident that living conditions for women and girls in India would improve over the next 15 years.
Campaigners, though, are less optimistic, pointing to the rising number of crimes being committed against women. Since 2012, reported rape cases have increased 60% to around 40,000 in 2016.
The number of women in the workforce has fallen dramatically, while campaigners say changes to the country’s anti-dowry laws have weakened protections for women.
“The ruling national party keeps announcing that women should stay at home and have four children. [It says] that it is the clothes and behaviour of women that invite rapes,” said Ruchira Gupta, founder of the campaign group Apne Aap Women Worldwide. “Women’s rights are being pushed back, not increasing at all in India.”
In India, three-quarters of young people believe women have worse lives than men; in Saudi Arabia, almost two-thirds of people agreed this is the case. The Kingdom has rolled back some restrictions on women, including a long-standing prohibition on female drivers. But the lifting of the driving ban has been overshadowed by widespread arrests of women’s rights activists, in a crackdown described as unprecedented by some rights groups.
According to the survey, only one in five young people in Russia believe that men have better living conditions than women. Last year the country partially decriminalised domestic violence.
Teens in low- and middle-income countries were more confident that living conditions would improve for women than men over the next 15 years. Around three-quarters of those young people surveyed in China, Indonesia, Mexico, India, Kenya and Nigeria believed this to be the case. But respondents in developed countries were less optimistic. Less than half of those surveyed in Europe believed things would get better for women. Only four in ten of respondents in Great Britain said living conditions for women will improve over the next 15 years. Campaigners in Britain have warned of cuts to women’s services; House of Commons analysis has shown 86% of the burden of austerity since 2010 has fallen on women.
When asked about their main worries, young people listed education, unemployment and security as key concerns.
“My biggest fear in life is failing exams,” Daniel, 16, from Magadi in Kenya, told the Guardian. “In our family, I am the first one to be educated. It would be sad, after all these years of studying, to fail.”
When asked which forces have a negative impact on their lives, almost half of the young people surveyed in China cited pollution.
The negative impact of the internet and social media were also listed by one in five of the respondents in Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Indonesia. “I feel unsafe online because that’s where I really show what I stand for, and that’s where I speak up for what I believe in,” said Becky, 17, Jakarta, Indonesia. “I believe in LGBTQ+ rights. It’s not illegal to be part of that community, but there definitely aren’t any laws to protect you.”
The survey showed large variations in online access for young people.
Becky and friends, Jakarta; Fabiola in Mexico City (mobile view only); Alex in New York
Three-quarters of respondents in Kenya and less than two-thirds of those in Nigeria said that they didn’t have access to a computer, internet access at home, a bank account or a phone or smartphone. This was also the case for a third of young people from India.
Across the rest of the world, two-thirds or more of the respondents have access to the internet, to a smartphone or to a computer.
It’s expected that 50% of the world’s population will be online by the end of 2019, according to the International Telecommunications Union. The United Nations’ broadband commission for sustainable development aims to increase this to 75% worldwide by 2025.
“The main challenge is typically around cost: it’s just really expensive relative to average incomes in countries [such as Kenya],” said Dhanaraj Thakur, research director at the Web Foundation. For mobile broadband to be affordable, 1GB of data must cost less than 2% of average monthly income, according to the Foundation. Aside from affordability, there also needs to be relevant content available in local languages, and people need to have the skills and knowledge to use online sites.
Women, added, Thakur, have the least online access. Poor urban women in developing countries are 50% less likely than men to access the internet.
A lack of internet not only has an impact on young people’s education, but also their ability to start a business – a much-discussed route in countries where there are high levels of youth unemployment.
Although the majority of young people, 70%, reported spending half or more of the day studying, there were differences between countries. Almost 20% of young Kenyans spend around half their day on chores, housework or caring for family members – only 5% of children in France do. Recent research by Unicef has shown a gender gap in the time children spend doing household chores, with young girls between 10 and 14 years old in south Asia, the Middle East and north Africa spending nearly double the amount of time on such tasks.
“Young people still manage to remain optimistic and invested in their future, making their own sacrifices to get ahead,” said Awiti. They want opportunities, but it’s not just about jobs, he said. “They also want to succeed, they want everything everybody wants, they want to buy a home, buy a car. They just want to get involved in the daily process of running society.”
“If you try as hard as you want, eventually you’ll get there,” said Alf, back in Great Britain. “You’ve got to bring yourself up.”