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What Young People Think of Their Future

GianPaolo Salvini, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Wed, Sep 11th 2019

The results of an international sociological research project were recently presented in Rome. It looked to explore what young people think about their own personal futures and how they view the outlook for their families and for the local and national communities in the countries where they live. The survey was based on a large sample of young people aged between 18 and 30 years in the period between March and July 2018 and involved young people from four European countries: Italy, Germany, Poland and Russia. As far as Italy is concerned, the reference institute was Eurispes (Institute for Economic, Social and Political Studies),[1] which put their research results online together with other materials that we have used for this article.[2]

The research method

Here are a few comments on the sample chosen for the survey and on the methodology followed. The survey involved 1,536 young people living in the four countries mentioned. In each country 384 people were interviewed. According to the researchers, the sample size ensures that the results are representative of each of the selected countries.[3] The technique of the survey consisted in using a method combining a classic survey (conducted face to face) and online work.



These four countries were each chosen for reasons distinctive reasons, including their markedly differing historical paths, albeit they have many similarities. Historical events have certainly had an impact on the current generation of young people. The research presents their diversity, dividing them into: “a) Countries where there have never been fundamental changes in the economic and political sphere; b)Countries that have seen a unification of fundamentally different economic and political systems; c) Countries where there have been substantial changes in economic and political structures. In these countries Christian culture is represented by its main components: Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox” (p. 4).

More specifically, Russia underwent profound historical transformations in the 20th century, which to a large extent also determined world development. In practice, during the period of monarchy and up to the beginning of this century, it had no experience of true democracy: it passed from a system in which the Tsar was the center of political life to a communist one party system. Now, a new political system based in theory on democratic principles has been established as a republic with a president and parliament. In the religious sphere, there has been a move from Orthodoxy, recognized as the national religion, to the complete rejection of it and, after the collapse of the USSR, the return of religion to an active role in the socio-political life of the country.

Italy is a developed agricultural-industrial nation with a long history as a market economy. In the past two centuries there has been no change from one market economy system to another, and the role of Catholicism has never been questioned. The economic sphere is characterized by large regional differences in terms of income and industrialization. The black economy also plays a significant role in the nation’s finances.

From 1949 to 1990 Germany was divided into two states: the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic (DDR). The first maintained the market organization of production and the value system of the Protestant-Catholic society, while the DDR adopted the Soviet command economy and its corresponding political values. After unification in 1990, the eastern part was practically absorbed by the western market economic system. Protestantism is widely the religious focus found in  the former DDR and had numerous adherents before unification. Poland had a market economy before the Second World War, and Catholicism strongly influenced public life. After the War the Soviet system with its command economy model was dominant. The role of religion was neither officially recognized nor supported. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact it returned to the previous market economy system and the Catholic Church resumed an active role in community life.

The ‘life values’ of young people

The young people surveyed were given a series of 25 “life values.” Researchers only took into account the answers on the values scale that were indicated as “very important” or “important.” This highlighted the values on which young people focus their attention and on which it is likely that they will act in the future. The percentages shown below concern the proportion of young people who have indicated the corresponding value as important. The general tendencies expressed in the responses are quite homogeneous in the four countries considered, but with specific differences.

Health is in first place in Italy (97.8 percent), Poland (98 percent) and Russia (95 percent); in Germany the percentage drops to 86.1 percent, while the first place goes to the value accorded to Friends. Education rates highest in Italy (96.4 percent), while in the other countries it has been indicated as important in a percentage that varies between 81.2 percent and 88 percent of responses.

If one wishes to to glean general indications on some of the significant and interesting points, one should note, for example, that the value of Children is rather low in the older age groups: no more than 70 percent in each country, a figure confirmed by the low fertility rates existing today in all countries. It is therefore a value considered less important than Friends, Free Time and Leisure.

The values of Personal Independence and Freedom were judged to be important between 80 and 95 percent of young people, which highlights the desire to avoid parental control. The desire for independence grows with age.

Religion is held to have the lowest status in the ranking of values (between 36.9 and 32.8 percent in all countries). The decline in religious values among young people is not linked to religious confession. In fact, these are countries in which the main Christian denominations are present, but with substantially similar data. The lowest places in the ranking, next to Religion, are generally occupied by Patriotism, Beauty, Business and Politics.

The importance of Work and of Money is obviously higher in the countries where young people face the greatest difficulties in achieving employment or a decent wage: work is highly valued by 92.4 percent of those interviewed in Italy, 89.1 percent in Russia, 87.5 percent in Poland, but only 70.7 percent in Germany.

Patriotism does not arouse particular interest among young people. In Russia, Patriotism, Politics and Religion were at the bottom of the list of values, despite the great emphasis on these issues made by the media and the Church in this country.

Russia has some unique aspects compared to other countries, such as the low esteem of values such as Democracy (only 58 percent), while in other countries it is at the level of at least 80 percent, and in Italy it is 91.1 percent. There also appears to be a greater emphasis on the material aspects of life and a certain desire for privacy in personal life. In Russia, less importance is attached to the values of Friends and Sex, which is generally not typical for this age group. Even less importance is attached to the value Follow Solid Principles. The gap between Russia and Italy on this category is more than 25 percent. Instead, there is greater interest in the material aspects of life and well-being.

The fundamental similarity in the structure of values indicates that the young people of these four countries belong to a common European culture, but the particular differences of each country and the specifics of social life also appear.

The emotional state of young people in 2018 and family planning

If we divide the emotional state of young people into three categories: Negative, Uncertain or Positive, we can conclude that a constant negative mood leads the population to abandon certain activities and inhibits the development not only of individuals, but also of society. Young people with this state of mind will not be promoters of development. On the other hand, positive states of mind are considered to be as infectious as negative ones: if they are multiplied, the emotions of joy and happiness can become the basis of public enthusiasm.

In Italy, 55.5 percent of young people in 2018 had positive emotions; 43.4 percent experienced negative emotional situations, and only 1.2 percent experienced uncertainty. In Germany, negative emotions dominate (43.8 percent). These included indifference, melancholy and sadness; 35.4 percent of young people have positive emotions; and 5.7 percent experience uncertainty. In Poland, the positive mood prevails: 48.7 percent have positive emotions; 31.2 percent experience negative emotions; and 20.1 percent are in a state of uncertainty. In Russia, young people are divided into three almost equal groups: 37.3 percent experienced negative moods; 30.1 percent an attitude positive characteristics; and 32.6 percent frames of mind marked by uncertainty.

With regard to reproductive orientation, family planning, the creation of a family and the birth of children, it is clear how important this area is for the current generation and for society as a whole. The expected number of children is lower than the ideal number, as shown by surveys in all countries. The largest number of children is found in the concrete plans of Russians and Italians, amounting respectively to an average of 1.64 and 1.74 children. It should be noted for all the countries considered that fertility rates in relation to the expected number of children (from 1.28 to 1.74 children on average) never reach the level required to maintain current population levels. This suggests that, for at least a decade, the current population will continue to shrink, opening up space for migrants, especially in the area of employment. But this is not yet the subject of serious public debate in these countries.

Any growth in reproductive orientation is strongly correlated to a sense of confidence in the future. The comparison of responses to being confident or uncertain about one’s future reveals a significant difference in outlook. This indicates that an increase in the birth rate is possible not only with the help of financial or other support from the member states, but also if the views of young people on the possibility of social mobility are changed, with more optimistic forecasts of real success for young people in society.

It should be remembered that the orientation toward a low level of births does not imply that young people have abandoned the idea of a family life, “which instead is fully accepted and inserted in their structure of values, where the value of the family is significantly higher than the value of the children” (p. 10). Opponents of the creation of a family union are generally around 10.5 percent. The minimum number of opponents of family life is found among Germans (3.9 percent), while Italians (82.2 percent) are the most family oriented.

Horizons for future planning

1) Lifespan. People define the duration of their life plans differently. Some plan the future for a year, some for 5 or 10 years, and some live from day to day. Obviously, everything depends on the conditions in which persons actually find themselves. The public environment, the possibility of career and personal growth, the presence of stable values in society, and a vision of the future clearly outlined in its main elements are factors that contribute to forming and clarifying the breadth of this horizon.

From the results obtained in all the countries surveyed one may conclude that young people have a horizon for planning their lives for an average period of 5 to 8 years, which sociologists consider a short period. Young people do not see the possibility of adopting long-term plans, but neither are they necessarily oriented toward living from day to day.

Important elements for long-term planning are life expectancy, but also the length of a healthy life. According to Eurostat data, for 2016 the average life expectancy for Poles was estimated at 78 years, for Germans 81 years, for Italians 83.4 years: data confirmed by research results.

Young Russians reported their life expectancy was 68.8 years, almost 4 years lower than the official statistics, confirming their belief that they will have to make greater efforts to achieve their goals than the current generation of active people, and so their physical resources will be consumed more quickly. If we ask young people what the age limit is for physical and mental activity to continue in good condition, they estimate 66.6 in Italy, 61.2 in Germany, 51.1 in Poland and 56.2 in Russia. These estimates indicate levels significantly lower than those provided by modern medicine: 83.4 years for Italy, 81 for Germany, 78 for Poland, 72.7 for Russia.

2) Social mobility. Taking into account the perspective of 10-15 years, the young people of the four countries believe that in the future they will have the opportunity to become more financially secure and to live in a more powerful and respected country. All evaluations show a positive outlook. Italians and Poles are at the highest level both in current situations and in the perspective of a future of 10-15 years, but young Italians believe they will make the most progress on the social ladder. Social optimism is also found among young people in all the countries. “The self-assessment of the prospects of the young generation of Russia, Poland, Germany and Italy shows a focus on vertical social mobility” (p. 12). This also improves the position of each country in a competitive world.

The factor Confidence in the Future plays a crucial role. The assessment of Confident/Insecure About the Future varies significantly across countries. People who are confident in their future have shown higher initial indices and greater advances on the social scale. The only exception is Italy, where young people without confidence in the future, even if they evaluate their positions lower than those of people who have confidence in their future, believe that their progress will be great.

According to the research, Russia is the only country in which the assessment of the power and strength of the state and the prospects for its worldwide promotion are higher than personal social dynamics. In other words, it will gain a better position on the world stage. Germany in the coming10-15 years, according to its young people, will see a slight worsening of its position, but its economic development will continue to make it one of the engines of global development. From this point of view, young Italians and Poles exhibit an average value level in the current situation and in the coming 10-15 years.

The gender differences are interesting. In Germany and Russia, girls are very optimistic. In Italy and Poland young males are more optimistic. The authors of the research believe that the bulk of the young respondents, as a whole, enjoys a healthy level of optimism.

3) Civil and political activity. The ability to interact with the authorities and to influence the decision-making process reflects the level of democracy in a state, but also indicates the level of trust in the authorities and the involvement of the population in the management process at the various decision-making levels.

The ability to influence official policy allows you to plan your future in an appropriate and favorable environment. According to the survey, the higher the level of the public institution, the fewer the young people who think they can influence the decision-making process. Young Poles and Germans are convinced that they have the greatest chance of influencing national politics as well as those of regional authorities. Young people in Italy think they can influence the policy of regional and municipal authorities.

With regard to the possibility of influencing national politics, opinions are equally divided between Yes and No. Young people in Russia think they have no influence on the policy of the authorities at any level. This corresponds to the low importance for Russians of the values of democracy and politics. This risks undermining the credibility of the authorities.

It may be interesting, in order to define the maturity of civil society, to evaluate the participation of young people in certain initiatives in their country. For example, in a country where the role of the Church and religion is strong, religious institutions are actively involved in society and participation in religious activities is increasing, as in Italy.

The same applies to voluntary activities (including work for the poorest), which involve young people in Germany (35.6 percent) and Italy (36.8 percent), while in Russia and Poland the percentage of young people participating in this type of activity is reduced by half: 18.3 percent in Russia and 17.2 percent in Poland. This indicates a significant cultural difference, the distance from power and the tendency of young people to close in on themselves in order to devote themselves to solving personal problems or those of the immediate environment that surrounds them. Only 28.8 percent of young Russians said they participated in national elections; the same is true in Poland, where participation is 10 percent higher. But young people from all four countries express equal appreciation for their ability to participate in leisure and recreation activities.

In Germany and Italy there is a greater involvement of young people in political life – through participation in elections at various levels, in referendums, and in demonstrations – than there is among Poles and Russians.

If it is a question of evaluating a successful life the most important criterion for young people is Self-realization of the Individual, summarized by the expression “the opportunity to live an interesting life.” Then come the criteria of Friendship, Communication and that of Health. Young respondents from all countries believe that they should rely on their own strengths, formulating plans to be implemented alone or with the help of another All reveal that they want to achieve their goals independently. The ones who show the highest level of self-reliance are the young Italians.

Concluding remarks

We have presented some of the most interesting results of the research that was conducted with the idea of outlining the future as young European people imagine it, on the assumption that they constitute the group that best perceives the social atmosphere and the direction of development of the country in which they live.

It is clear that the social horizon for young people as they plan for their lives extends to the medium term. However, it does not keep pace with the horizon of biological planning, which is understandable because we are living in a time of rapid change that has never been experienced before and that young people perceive better than adults. They are already part of it as participants, although often unaware and not always active.

This observation limits how one views future progress, but it also means that young people do not live day by day. They perceive that many things studied with difficulty by their parents or grandparents today are no longer needed or are insufficient, and this does not allow them to plan in the longer term, which in the past was the normal marker for those of a mature age. A more sustainable, less improvised and less devastating development process for the environment, combined with a more stable and more secure international framework, can contribute to broadening and lengthening the horizon of future forecasts and plans.

In the four countries chosen for the survey, there are very similar guiding values, which speak of the common Christian roots in European culture and the spread of universal values among the young people of Europe. In addition, there are national characteristics in the public life and history of each country.

Young people seem to show a more marked social optimism than adults, who have generally compared the present with a past that seems to them more solid and comfortable than the present and future uncertainties. In this sense, the research shows a better picture than that usually narrated by the media, always attentive above all to dysfunctions and failures. If young people are optimistic about the dynamism of the social ladder, this can also be a sign of the functioning of so-called “Social Elevators” in the community, which even if they are not yet working, are at least hoped for by European youth.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 8, art. 5, 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1908.5

[1] The initiative was promoted by three Russian scholars: Svetlana Varlamova and Elena Kayshauri, of the Federal Center for Theoretical and Applied Sociology-Fctas of the Russian Academy of Sciences; and Anna Doroshina, of the Department of Sociology of the University “D.I. Mendeleev” of Moscow. In Germany, the reference body was the Iwak Institute at the Goethe University in Frankfurt.

[2] The numbers cited in brackets in the article refer to the pages of the text made available online by Eurispes.

[3] Since the population of each country considered is greater than 100,000 people, the calculation of the sample showed a probability of reliability of 0.95, and a sampling error of ±5 percent.

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