Judy’s Notebook: A Millennial Crystal Ball

BY Judy Woodruff  June 5, 2013 at 6:13 PM EDT

If you still aren’t sure about how large a role technology will play in creating job opportunities in the future, or whether China rather than the U.S. is the main driver of the global economy, or how worried the younger generation is about climate change, there’s a just-released global survey to provide answers. It’s a kind of a “millennial crystal ball” that came about when Telefonica, the giant telecommunications company based in Spain, paired up with the Financial Times to sponsor the largest global study of millennials ever conducted: more than 12,000 respondents, in 27 countries, across six continents.

A majority of young people still say they believe they ‘can make a global difference.’

The survey was weighted in favor of those with a college education, and some of the findings confirmed what we’ve already learned about the younger generation in the United States and Western Europe: they’re worried about the economy and whether they’ll have the chance to do as well as their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. (No surprise, since both regions are struggling with slow economic growth.) In the short run, majorities in every region say it is difficult for their age cohort to “progress from school to the workplace environment.”

So it was striking that most millennials in Asia and Latin America especially, as well as in Central and Eastern Europe, and even in the Middle East and Africa, responded that, despite obstacles like these, they still believe their “country’s best days are ahead.”

At the same time, a majority of young people on every continent except Latin America believe technology has widened the gap between rich and poor, a separation they suggest they’d like to see closed. And there is another notable gap in the perceptions of technology: gender. Young men are far more likely than young women to consider themselves on the cutting edge of technology, or to say technology has been influential in shaping their outlook on life. This could have implications for the ability of women to influence the economy, since technology and jobs will go hand-in-hand in many sectors.

One other finding that probably shouldn’t surprise us is the high proportion of millennials outside the United States who say climate change is a “very pressing” issue: 70 percent in Latin America, 59 percent in Asia and 49 percent in Western Europe. In the U.S., only 36 percent say the same, perhaps because of the paramount worry here over jobs and the economy.

What also comes through in this global survey, the most comprehensive of its kind, is a stubborn personal optimism that is often directly proportional to the level of political freedom respondents enjoy. In the U.S., where worries about jobs and debt trump all other concerns, a majority of young people still say they believe they “can make a global difference.” Larger majorities agree across most of Latin America, South Africa, India and South Korea. But in China, with its Communist government (and despite explosive economic growth), only 27 percent of young people say they believe they can make a global difference, and even fewer, 22 percent, say so in Russia, where the government of Vladimir Putin is increasingly repressive.

The odds are slim to none, but wouldn’t it be heartening if the leaders in these and other countries spent a little more time listening to these young people and thinking about the contributions they have to make, both inside their own borders, and beyond?

Graphic from Telefonica’s Global Millennial Survey