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The Pew Research Center has conducted years of public opinion surveys around the globe which have found that young adults think differently about the world and their country’s place in it compared to their older counterparts. Young people tend to have more positive views of international organisations and other countries and are more likely to prioritise international cooperation. However, while young adults are often more supportive of international cooperation than older adults, they are not uniform in this view. Focus groups that we recently conducted in four nations highlighted the nuanced positions young people have regarding how they want their countries to engage in the world.
[W]hile young adults are often more supportive of international cooperation than older adults, they are not uniform in this view.
The focus groups were conducted with young adults (aged 18 to 29) in November and December of 2022 in Paris; Berlin; Arlington, Virginia (a suburb of Washington, D.C.); and London. In each country, there were four groups, organised around their participants’ ideologies and views on foreign engagement. Despite different histories and current political climates, the groups’ distinct attitudes about how best to engage with the world were consistent cross-nationally.
Note: The typical position shown here is a simplification of the focus groups and reflects the cross-national themes that came up in each archetypal group. Source: Focus groups conducted Nov.8 - Dec.7, 20200. Pew Research Center
For example, some young people view international involvement as their moral duty but are doubtful their government gets involved for the right reasons (called left-leaning internationally engaged). While others also feel the moral need to help other countries, they prioritise fixing domestic problems first (left-leaning domestically focused). Other inward-looking participants feel their country’s resources are too limited to get involved internationally and prioritise self-sufficiency (right-leaning domestically focused). And one final attitude was held by those who believe their country is connected to others, and that international involvement benefits their economic and security interests (right-leaning internationally engaged). For more information on the shared characteristics of each group, see: How Young Adults Want Their Country To Engage With the World.
While participants in the groups hold different approaches to international engagement writ large, they share many of the same priorities when it comes to global issues.
Among focus group participants, those in the domestically focused groups on both the left and right tend to see foreign and domestic interests locked in a zero-sum competition for resources. These young adults are not necessarily isolationists, but often want to ensure their own country’s needs are addressed before helping other countries. As one French woman said: “I have the impression that France is trying to save other countries before saving itself.” Internationally engaged young people – also on the right and the left – instead view international engagement as a moral obligation they hold as a prosperous nation and something that benefits their country in the long run.
While participants in the groups hold different approaches to international engagement writ large, they share many of the same priorities when it comes to global issues. For example, they desire more action on climate change, which all focus group participants see as a global issue that requires global solutions and solidarity. “There’s no way of dealing with climate change as just us because we’re going to be by ourselves,” said one woman in the UK. Domestically focused participants additionally tend to advocate for energy independence (for those on the right) or diversification to greener options (for those on the left). Internationally engaged people – particularly those in Europe – are more inclined to see their countries as able to engage in diplomacy and mediation to tackle these issues.
Also on the Forum Network: We young people know what we want—decision-makers need to listen and understand, by Carmen Romero Steering Committee Member, Global Student Forum
Young people require innovative solutions to today's labour market and climate concerns. Carmen Romero of the Global Student Forum calls on leaders to listen to youth voices in these matters and usher in a more inclusive future.
Past Pew Research Center surveys suggest young adults generally have more positive attitudes toward international engagement than older people. For example, they consistently express more favourable views of multilateral organisations such as the EU and the UN. Internationally engaged participants view membership in an organisation like NATO as critical for establishing and increasing their country’s position, power and security in the world. As one U.S. woman said: “Acting multilaterally is stronger than acting alone. Russia's economy wouldn't be nearly as crippled if we weren’t acting with the UK and the EU and all our other partners.” However, those who prioritise domestic issues are more wary about the possible drain of resources membership poses. They are particularly critical of the EU, where Europeans are frustrated with the loss of their country’s autonomy, and the UN, prompting many to call for institutional reform.
Thinking of the future, young people see several positive steps that can be taken to improve their countries’ foreign policy. For instance, young adults want to see their leaders take clear stands on issues and act more decisively. As a French woman said, “Being more clear-cut in our choices, being more coherent, as best we can, because I do understand it’s very complicated. But more coherence, a clearer line.” And finally, across all groups, there is a call for great transparency in their country’s global affairs. Many feel frustrated and far removed from the foreign policy decisions that impact their daily lives and want clarity on basic policy actions and how their country’s money is spent abroad. For more analysis of these focus group discussions in France, Germany, the U.S. and the UK, see How Young Adults Want Their Country To Engage With the World.