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Optimists, Pessimists and Crisis Communities: How the world views the future at the start of the New Year and what we can learn from it

Residents of developing and poorer countries, primarily in Southeast Asia and Latin America, demonstrate an extremely high level of optimism about the future, while those in prosperous Europe and developed countries are pessimistic. However, when it comes to specific potential problems, such as inflation, a new pandemic or natural disasters, optimists are even more likely than pessimists to see them. That is, although they see the world as much less predictable than residents of prosperous countries do, they approach it with optimistic fatalism.The pessimism of prosperous countries can be explained by the political culture of 'crisis engagement' in democracies: the media and politicians, in an effort to emphasise the importance of their agenda, paint the most negative scenarios in order to draw attention to them. ECFR experts Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard identify five 'crisis communities' in Europe, belonging to which significantly shapes the vision of the future and political behaviour of European voters. Each community is formed around one of the crises of the last decade, which changed the community's perceptions of a likely future, marking a particular existential threat. The balance between them will determine the outcome of this year's European Parliament elections.

The world: prosperous pessimists and optimistic fatalists

According to 70% of respondents worldwide, 2023 was a bad year for their country, and according to 53%, it was a bad year for themselves and their families, as revealed by an Ipsos survey of more than 25,000 people in 34 countries (using a dedicated online platform). Expectations for the current year, however, are more optimistic, with 70% of respondents describing themselves as optimistic that the year ahead will be better than 2023. However, it is striking that in Southeast Asia (China, Indonesia, India, Philippines, China) and Latin America (Mexico, Peru, Chile) optimism is soaring, indicated by 80-90% of those surveyed. Meanwhile, European and generally developed countries (Canada, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, South Korea, Belgium, France and Japan) are at the bottom of the list, with optimists making up just 40-60% of those surveyed.

The overall level of optimism strongly correlates with the level of economic optimism. Globally, opinions on whether the world economy will be in better shape in the new year or not were split exactly 50/50. However, this does not reflect the balance of optimists and pessimists in society, but the national balance of different dominant attitudes. Among the economic superoptimists, Southeast Asia is even more densely represented: in addition to the four countries mentioned above, Thailand and Malaysia are also on the list, and Mexico and Brazil round out the optimist team. In these countries, 60-85% of respondents believe that the economy will be stronger in the coming year. Economic pessimists are found in roughly the same developed countries (with the addition of Sweden), where only 30–40% believe that the economic year will be better than the previous one.

Paradoxically, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Mexico are among the countries where the vast majority of people believe that inflation in 2024 will be higher than in the past. 75-85% of those surveyed are convinced of this. In Indonesia and Malaysia, moreover, 75-85% believe unemployment will rise. South Africa and Turkey are also on the list with the most negative forecasts for unemployment and inflation. In contrast, many pessimistic countries appear on the list of those concerned about inflation and unemployment (Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan). However, even in these countries, concerns about their increase are shared by 50-65% of the population.

Equally remarkably, in countries characterised by widespread optimism, 60-70% of the population believes that this year the world is highly likely to face another pandemic from a new virus. Meanwhile, in prosperous but pessimistic countries, such a possibility is acknowledged by 30–45%. In optimistic countries, 50-60% of respondents believe it is likely that an artificial intelligence-based virus programme will cause global chaos, about 50% believe Trump will win the election, and 30-45% believe an asteroid could crash into the earth this year. Expectations of these events significantly exceed their expectations in pessimist countries.

As we can see, optimism and pessimism appear to be multidimensional categories. In prosperous and democratic countries people are more focused on specific problems and attach greater importance to them, while in less prosperous countries people, while in less prosperous countries, although people see the world as much less predictable than in prosperous ones, they approach it with optimistic fatalism.

The United States and Russia: gloomy Republicans and ambivalent optimists

In the United States, there are two dividing lines between optimism and pessimism. One runs along the opposition between the personal and the public. According to a YouGov survey, about half (47%) of those surveyed in America predict that 2024 will be a good year for them personally, while 17% predict that it will be a bad year. However, when it comes to the outlook for the country, the situation is reversed: 23% expect a successful year for the nation, while 43% believe the year will be bad or even dreadful. The second dividing line is between Democrats and the rest of the US population. Among Democrats, 60% believe in personal success in the new year and 40% believe it will be a good year for the country. Among Republicans and independent voters, only 40% expect personal success and only 12-15% are optimistic about the country. About 50% in these groups give a negative forecast for the country, with a significant portion of this pessimistic half insisting that the year will not just be bad but specifically dreadful. This seemingly indicates that these groups are focused on issues that appear difficult to resolve or even existential. And, they also transfer this social pessimism onto the sphere of personal life.

How do you predict 2024 will be??? % of those surveyed

U.S. adult citizens




The optimism of Russians appears somewhat contradictory and illogical. In a survey conducted by the Levada Center, 14% of respondents said that the new year would be 'definitely better', but over the 10 years from 2010 to 2019, the share of such answers fluctuated between 5-9%, averaging 7%. This year it is twice as high. 57% are active optimists ('I really hope it will be better'). In the 2010s there were 47% of such people on average. However, this indicator seems ambiguous and ambivalent. The maximum number of active optimists (60%) was in 2020 when people expressed hope that the hardships of the pandemic would be left behind. The energy of 'hope' here reflected more of a fatigue from the problems of the past year. The share of moderate optimists ('I think it will not be worse') in the survey was 14%, compared to 21% in the 2010s. But the share of those who gave a negative forecast ('it is unlikely that something will change' and 'it will be worse') decreased to 12%, although the norm throughout the 2010s was 21%. That is, the proportion of pure pessimists decreased despite the war, while the share of pure pessimists increased. At the same time, the growth in the number of 'hopefuls' may reflect both optimism and fatigue from the problems of the past year.

At the same time, 58-59% expect the coming year to be tense for both the economy and political life in Russia, compared with 31% who believe it will be calm in both respects. This is, however, much better than in 2022 and 2020, when 70% and 73% expected a tense economic year. However, the twofold excess of 'anxious' over 'positive' answers slightly adjusts the favourable picture found in responses to the first question.

Anatomy of pessimism: Europe's five 'crisis communities' and the upcoming elections

The fact that residents of developed and prosperous countries tend to view the world and its prospects more pessimistically is also evident in the results from other surveys. However, this can also be explained by their higher level of awareness and engagement. In democracies, both the media and the political class aim to focus society's attention on issues, involving them in political life and problem-solving. In an effort to raise the profile of their agenda, they highlight the most negative scenarios in order to draw attention to them. Climate activists speak of an imminent natural disaster, while those who support Ukraine talk about Putin's equally imminent attack on Europe. In semi-democracies and autocracies, politicians and media are less inclined or not at all inclined to stimulate such 'crisis engagement', and citizens are more focused on 'close circle' issues rather than global ones, believing themselves incapable of influencing these larger issues.

Public opinion in today's Europe is described in the classic divisions of 'left' and 'right' or Euro-optimists and Eurosceptics. According to Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard, what defines the positioning of Europeans and their visions of the future is which of the five major crises of recent years appears to them to be paramount and most significant, or existential. This conclusion is based on a survey conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in nine European Union countries, as well as in the United Kingdom and Switzerland. Extrapolating the survey results to the EU's 372 million adults, they conclude that, for some 74 million Europeans, it is the issue of climate change; for another 74 million it is the threat of a new pandemic after the first one undermined their faith in the capabilities of modern medicine; for 71 million it is economic concerns (their belief that their children will be better off than them has been undermined by the economic dynamics of the last decade); for some 58 million it is migration issues that threaten European identity; and for another 50 million the biggest crisis is the war in Ukraine.

These five 'crisis communities' are unevenly distributed across different countries and regions of Europe. For example, in Germany, the largest group is concentrated in the ‘migration crisis community’. In France and Denmark there are 'climate crisis communities'. In Portugal and Italy, citizens are most concerned about economic turmoil. Spain, the UK and Romania are dominated by members of the 'pandemic crisis communities'. Finally, Estonia and Poland predictably have the largest number of those who believe that the Russia-Ukraine war is the systemic crisis of recent times. Younger voters tend to relate more to the ‘climate crisis community’. In contrast, respondents over 70 years old in all countries are most focused on the issue of the war in Ukraine and migration. Among highly educated respondents, a large proportion also belong to the 'climate crisis community', with economic issues being the next issue of concern. People with low levels of education more often belong to the 'migration crisis community'.

Each of these crises has shocked and undermined previous visions of the future in their respective 'communities', and what governments are doing to prevent their distant and catastrophic consequences is causing the 'communities' to feel a sense of inadequacy and frustration. This will determine the political behaviour of these 'communities', particularly in the forthcoming European Parliament elections. For example, those who see migration as the biggest crisis are likely to vote for centre-right or far-right parties. The 'climate crisis community' will vote for green or left-wing parties like the Civic Coalition in Poland, the Greens in Germany and France, and the Democratic Party in Italy.

However, different 'communities' also exhibit different types of political behaviour, according to Krastev and Leonard. When the 'migration community' sees right-wing parties in power, its supporters tend to be more relaxed about migration issues, believing that these are under control. In contrast, members of the 'climate community' continue to worry about the climate without seeing the problem as solved. The 'economic crisis community' is characterised by an anti-government stance: they often dislike any government in power, left or right. In contrast, the disciplined and older members of the 'war crisis community' are more loyal to incumbent governments.

Accordingly, the 'communities' also differ in terms of their mobilisation potential, which is particularly important in the run-up to the elections. Focusing on economic problems tends to demoralise people rather than motivate them, as they do not see a solution to this problem regardless of which government is in power. According to experts, the 'war crisis community' has now found itself isolated. Russia's aggression against Ukraine worried Europeans in the first six months of the war, but then it seems to have ceased to be perceived as an existential crisis for the whole of Europe, remaining an important issue primarily for border regions.

Experts believe that climate and migration are the defining topics for the upcoming elections. The 'climate crisis community' is the most pro-European: solving climate problems requires broad international cooperation, so it will consider the European Parliament as a tool for collective struggle. On the contrary, representatives of the 'migration crisis community' tend to be more sceptical of the EU. This is the only group where the majority expects the bloc to collapse in the next 20 years. And it is these two crises — climate and migration — that will dominate the media and political debate in the run-up to the election. The struggle between these two 'communities' is turning into a clash between two 'extinction rebellions'. While climate activists fear the destruction of human and other life, anti-migration activists fear the disappearance of national and European identity. This is why these two 'communities' will be the most active.