A DREAM has motivated humanity for as long as parents have dreamed: that whatever life brings, it will be better for the next generation. In the West secular economic decline and the aftermath of the global financial crisis have changed all that: according to a survey just published by the Pew Research Centre, 65% of Americans and 65% of Europeans now think that when their children grow up the kids will be worse off financially than they are.
The survey of 44 countries, a quarter of them in Asia, shows that economic optimism has followed economic growth: eastward. The continent with the highest proportion of respondents believing their children will be better-off than they are is Asia, with 58%.
The percentage would be higher still were Japan excluded. There, 79% thought their children would be worse off, which the highest proportion in any country surveyed apart from maudlin France (86%).
In Vietnam, by contrast, 94% expect their children to be wealthier; in China the proportion is 89%, in Bangladesh 71%, India 67% and Indonesia 62%. South Korea was the only advanced economy surveyed to show a majority (52%) of optimists. (Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan were not covered.)
Perhaps oddly for a country still run by a communist party, Vietnam comes out on top of another ranking—with 95% of respondents in favour of a “free-market economy”. The next three countries in that list are also in Asia—Bangladesh (80%), South Korea (78%) and another communist country, China (76%).
America is an outlier on one, more philosophical, question, with 57% disagreeing with the assertion that life is determined by forces outside one’s control. Asians, by contrast, lack the American conviction that you make your own destiny. In South Korea, 74% of respondents agreed that life is largely determined by outside forces; the proportion was 73% in Vietnam, 58% in China and Indonesia and 56% in India.
An explanation of that disparity might lie in the answers to questions about what is important in getting along in life. In America 62% think a good education is important, and 73% that hard work is. In China, for example, these two factors also ranked above others—such as knowing the right people, and good luck—but education was seen as being important to getting along by only 27% and hard work by 18%. If there is little you can do to affect your children’s lot, Asia’s optimism seems indistinguishable from fatalism.