Argument

Europe’s Kids Are Moody and Depressed

But what millennials think of their future prospects -- and of the United States -- isn’t a passing fad. And there's good reason to worry about the future of the continent.

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The future belongs to the young. So how the next generation feels and thinks matters to people of all ages. As much as baby boomers may lament it, it is millennials — those coming of age in this new century — who will shape the world’s economic and geopolitical destiny for years to come. At a time of renewed economic turmoil in Europe, growing tensions with Russia, and new evidence of China’s European ambitions, how Europeans ages 18 to 33 see their prospects, their ability to shape the future, and Europe’s relations with Russia, China, and the United States promises to have a profound effect on Europe’s role in the world.

Given Europe’s status as one of America’s largest trade and investment partners and its principle military and diplomatic ally, the sentiments of Europe’s millennials are of vital current and future interest to the United States

European millennials have suffered disproportionately from their countries’ recent economic troubles. Roughly one-in-two young people in Spain and Greece are unemployed. In the face of this challenge, young Europeans often view themselves as victims of fate. And it’s a troubling state of affairs when a majority believes that they have no agency on the world around them or their future. Roughly half or more millennials in six of the seven European Union nations surveyed by the Pew Research Center last year, for instance, believe that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.” That includes 63 percent of young Germans and Italians and 62 percent of young Greeks and Poles.

Don’t blame moody millennials. The sentiment is more cultural than generational issue: the same Pew survey shows that older Europeans similarly lack a sense of agency. But when a people, especially a young generation, thinks it has no power to affect the trajectory of its economy and society then they are unlikely to invest the effort to create a better future.

This is all too apparent in European millennials’ views on what it takes to succeed. For example, only about one-in-five millennials in France, one-in-four in Greece, and one-in-three in Poland, rate a good education as “very important to getting ahead in life.” Similarly, only about one-in-six young Greeks and a quarter of youths in Poland and France judge working hard as very important to getting ahead. And despite the reputation Germany holds for being the hardest-working nation in Europe, only 44 percent of its millennials say hard work is the ticket to getting ahead in life.

It is little wonder, then, that many European millennials despair about prospects for the next generation. When asked whether they thought today’s children in their country would be better off financially than their parents when they grew up, only 38 percent of the youth in Britain, 37 percent in Germany, and 15 percent in France were optimistic.

European millennials’ views on the world around them are somewhat more hopeful, at least where America is concerned. Fully 79 percent of young Poles, 78 percent of Italian millennials, and 77 percent of France’s young hold a favorable view of the United States. Only in Germany (49 percent) and Greece (39 percent), do less than half of millennials voice a positive opinion of Uncle Sam.

Young Europeans’ views of China are less positive, although far from negative. Nearly six-in-ten French millennials have a favorable view of China, as do 59 percent of young Britons and 57 percent of young Greeks. Notably, when thinking about the future of Sino-European relations, European millennials are markedly more positive toward China than people aged 50 and above: by 20 percentage points in France, 19 points in Britain, and 18 points in Spain.

Such findings do not necessarily augur a future transatlantic rift over relations with Beijing. Young Americans (44 percent) are also more favorable toward China than their elders (26 percent).

Of more immediate interest, given the current debate over what to do about Russia’s meddling in Ukraine, most European millennials show no affection for Moscow. Only roughly a third of young French and British people and just about a quarter of youths in Spain see Russia favorably. Nonetheless, nearly two-thirds of Greek millennials voice a positive view of Russia. And French, British, and Spanish millennials are significantly more favorable toward Russia than are their elders — something that bears watching.

The views of European millennials may well change as they age. As baby boomers have matured, their sentiments have certainly evolved. But two salient aspects of youthful European views bear watching. Their economic and psychological pessimism is hardly a prescription for a dynamic and innovative European economy. At the same time, their positive disposition toward the United States, their openness to China, and their wariness of Russia are broadly in America’s self-interest. All this may mean that there is greater hope for Europe as a U.S. strategic partner in the future than as an economic one.

David Ramos /Stringer

Bruce Stokes is the director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center.

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