International comparative surveys have repeatedly found that young adults are more optimistic about the future than their elders (see Ipsos 2018; Stellinger and Wintrebert 2008). The intergenerational differences are apparent in attitudes towards the future of their country and the world, as well as towards their own personal prospects (Ipsos 2018). In most cases, youth optimism about their own future tends to be higher than their optimism about the future of the country or the world. Our focus in this paper is on youth optimism towards their own personal prospects, here conceptualised as a generalised positive and hopeful belief that the future they aspire to can be achieved. We will not focus on what the exact nature of their aspirations is, nor their expectations of whether these specific aspirations are realisable. Aspirations are also idealistic projections about one’s future, but differ from the disposition of being optimistic because, in the academic literature anyway, aspirations are typically related to a specific outcome in the future (e.g. becoming a doctor or attending university) (see Khattab 2015). Expectations, on the other hand, convey what respondents believe will actually happen in the future as regard to their aspiration, as opposed to their hope of what will happen. Expectations are less idealistic and more rooted in the empirical reality of respondents’ experiences (see ibid). All three of these concepts are related but nonetheless distinct.
If we were to believe the predominant narratives about Millennials in the media, we might attribute the positivity of youth to their so-called sense of entitlement. Although newspapers frequently highlight that contemporary youth are ‘doomed’ because they have limited prospects, these same newspapers simultaneously perpetuate the idea that the latest generations are also ‘special snowflakes’ that have been raised with a sense of entitlement and expect the future to be handed to them on a plate (see also Twenge 2014). In short, according to this narrative, young adults are optimistic about the future because they believe they are entitled to achieve their aspirations, regardless of the socio-economic or individual circumstances they find themselves in. Alternatively, this hopeful perspective could be viewed as an indicator of youth ignorance, naivety or disregard for current and future challenges. Yet, this interpretation is difficult to sustain when numerous studies have shown that young adults are deeply concerned about a wide range of issues, including climate change, terrorism and economic uncertainty (Ipsos 2018; Black and Walsh 2019; Threadgold 2012; Cook 2016).
Diverse explanations are also apparent in the academic debate. In the field of psychology, for example, youth optimism is conceptualised as a positive force and a psychological resource that enables individuals to cope with the stress and uncertainty of this phase of the life course (Arnett et al. 2014: 572). According to Arnett (2014), early adulthood is no longer a short stepping stone between childhood and ‘full’ adulthood, but a distinct and drawn-out life phase that is filled with uncertainty and change. Optimism is thus one of the non-cognitive resources that emerging adults can draw on to navigate the challenges that they face during this phase. This psychological support function may explain why youth optimism remains high during economic crises (Arnett et al. 2014). By contrast, some sociologists in the UK have suggested that it could be a lack of stress that explains the high levels of optimism they found among UK youth (Furlong et al. 2018). According to this perspective, the uncertainty of young adulthood is now so pervasive that it is ‘baked in’ to how many contemporary youth view their experiences during this life stage. For example, they argue that young adults now expect to experience a period of precarious work, and this is taken for granted rather than a source of great stress. One reason for this, they suggest, is that this generation is less likely to see ‘traditional’ work as central to their identity and to place more value on job flexibility and the resultant time this affords for spending time with family, friends and on non-employment-related pursuits (ibid: 91). However, they also posit that it is not (just) that attitudes towards work have changed, but also that young graduates often assume that the precarity will be temporary, which is why they remain optimistic (ibid: 94).
Yet neither Arnett (2014) nor Furlong et al.’s (2018) explanations fully explain this phenomenon. In this paper, therefore, we have returned to the more traditional theoretical question in Youth Studies: what roles do structure and agency play?
The relative importance of structure and agency is a persistent theme in sociological research on youth, and highly pertinent in this context. At first glance, youth perceptions of their own agency may be a more promising explanation for youth optimism. After all, the same surveys that found high levels of youth optimism (e.g. IPSOS 2018) also found young people are more likely to believe that they can have a positive impact on the world and make a positive difference to how their country is governed (i.e. high levels of self-efficacy, a key measure of individual agency; Schoon and Lyons-Amos 2017). Agency is ‘the capacity for meaningful and sustained action both within situations and across the life course’ and previous research has shown that there is a strong relationship between young people’s perceptions of their agency and their actual outcomes in adulthood (Hitlin and Johnson 2015: 1462). Such is the import of this disposition that positive perceptions of one’s agency can help some individuals overcome structural constraints such as social class (although there are limits to its transformative power; see Schoon and Heckhausen 2019). Indeed, Leccardi (2017: 349) argues that the very ‘action of viewing the future as a realm of possibility has the power to unlock our ability to take on the material constraints of the present’. Recent qualitative research in England provides some further insight into the mechanisms that facilitate the transformative potential of youth optimism (see Franceschelli and Keating 2018). This study argues that there is a widespread and deep-seated faith among young adults that ‘If I work hard enough I can achieve everything I want to achieve’. At the individual level, this faith in the power of hard work offers a sense of control (I can change my own circumstances) and a plan of action (by working hard) that provides reassurance and generates or sustains feelings of optimism. That said, we should also acknowledge that while planning for the future can provide reassurance for some young adults, for others, thinking about the future can be a source of anxiety, particularly as they are so aware of the uncertainty of contemporary life, especially when it comes to employment opportunities and working conditions (Alexander et al. 2020).
The Future as Ideology and the Individualisation of Hope
One can also link youth optimism to the wider academic discussions about individualisation and neoliberalism that have been re-shaping Britain (see Franceschelli and Keating 2018). Put simply, individualisation theories suggest that the locus of control over future planning has shifted in late modern societies; in this context, young adults no longer have to follow the ‘standard biography’ but instead get to construct their own ‘choice biography’. This shift creates new opportunities (and risks) for young adults but also emphasises the role of individual agency in forging their own futures (see Beck 1992; and the debate between Woodman (2009, 2010) and Roberts (2010) about the role and limitations of Beck’s theories in understanding young lives in the contemporary context). Neoliberalism, meanwhile, perpetuates individualism both through its insistence that individuals are responsible for their own success or failures, and that the state should have a reduced role solving social problems. According to Black and Walsh (2019: 149), the individualising and responsibilising dictates of neoliberalism shape not just young people’s aspirations for the future, but also their perceptions for whether their aspirations are achievable. As a result, hope itself has been shaped by neoliberal discourses and has become positioned as an ideal characteristic of the neoliberal subjectivity. Neoliberalism not only implies that individuals control their own fate, but also promotes the idea that the free market offers a fair system where anyone who is talented and works hard can overcome all obstacles and achieve greater success (Brown et al. 2010). From a sociological perspective, then, an individual’s belief that ‘If I work hard enough I can achieve everything I want to achieve’ can be seen not just as a personal disposition but also a manifestation of a neoliberal meritocracy discourse that has become pervasive (see Littler 2017). Moreover, while optimism about the future can help young adults to achieve their much hoped for outcomes, in neoliberal societies, it can also obscure the obstacles placed in their way by social structures such as social class and racial and ethnic categorisations (Franceschelli and Keating 2018).
The Role of Resources
This latter argument raises a further question: what is the relationship between social structures and young adults’ optimism about the future? To date, there has been little research on the relationship between optimism and social structures such as social class, and the evidence that does exist is not conclusive (and, if quantitative, often not based on advanced analysis).Footnote 2 On the one hand, Arnett et al. (2014) found that young adults in the USA continued to be positive about their personal futures irrespective of their social class of origins and despite the economic fallout from the 2008 Global Economic Crisis. Arnett et al.’s (2014) suggestion implies that this is a rational coping strategy that young adults develop, and one which helps prevent other life-inhibiting problems (e.g. depression). This also implies that optimism is a strategy that is available to all, not just the better off. In Italy, by contrast, optimism is often a privilege reserved for young adults with enough economic and social capital to withstand the uncertainty of the present and have hope for the future (Leccardi 2017). Cross-national differences in cultural and institutional factors (such welfare systems and transition regimes) also contribute to explain the variable role of social class in these cases (ibid; Stellinger and Wintrebert 2008).
In the UK context, previous research suggests that family and individual-level resources are likely to play a key role in shaping youth optimism. According to Anderson et al. (2002: Sect. 83.5) ‘… access to resources has rather little impact on ambitions, but… [it] has a marked impact on confidence that plans will succeed and on the realism of plans.’ Yet, recent research suggests that there is a more complex relationship between youth optimism and individual- and family-level resources (see Franceschelli and Keating 2018). This study found that young adults across all social classes can be optimistic, but the function that it plays in young lives is quite distinct. When young adults have higher levels of educational and socio-economic resources (their own or their parents), then the positive attitudes that they have about the future are in keeping with what they have been told about how the world works and, moreover, in keeping with what are the likely outcomes; their higher levels of resources mean that they will, more often than not, achieve their aspirations. By contrast, for those with fewer resources and poorer prospects, optimism serves as an ‘anchor of hope’ that helps them cope with (and make sense of) the contradictions between the (neoliberal) messages they receive (if you just work hard enough you will attain your goals!) and the limited opportunities they see around themselves. This echoes the distinction that Wiles et al. (2008) made between ‘hope as want’ and ‘hope as expectation’ as they analysed terminal cancer patients’ attitudes towards the future. Optimism thus ‘represents a general desire for a positive future, rather than the expectation of a specific outcome…[and] the notion of “hope as want” shines light upon the ambiguities and tensions inherent in the concept of hope’ (Cook 2016: 519).
In sum, there has been little empirical research on optimism thus far, and certainly very little that combines advanced statistical analysis with the sociology of youth and the sociology of futures.Footnote 3 In light of this, and drawing on the literature discussed above, this paper seeks to use quantitative survey data to test three hypotheses. First, in line with the social structures literature, we examine whether ‘young adults are more likely to be optimistic about their future if they have higher levels of socio-economic, housing and/ or educational resources’ (H1). Second, and drawing on the agency and individualisation literature, we examine whether ‘young adults are more likely to be optimistic about their future if they have higher levels of agency and/or individualism’ (H2). Finally, we also examine how structure and agency interact; although structure and agency are discussed here as separate influences, in practice, these variables are inter-related (Schoon and Heckhausen 2019). Our third hypothesis, therefore is, that ‘agency and individualism affect youth optimism in different ways, depending on the level of individual-level resources available to the young adult’ (H3). The data and methods we use to test these hypotheses are discussed in the next section.