Whatever happened to the optimism of youth?


One of the things I enjoyed most, throughout my political career, was the opportunity to meet with young people. Almost without exception, they were curious, thoughtful and eager to face the world’s problems. I especially liked their optimism, their hope for the future.

Unfortunately, that quality seems to have faded. When I talk to young people today, they seem less positive about the country, especially about our political leadership. If you ask them to name a political leader whom they admire, they can’t come up with anyone.

Strikingly, they often don’t expect to be as successful as their parents. They think it will be harder to achieve the American Dream. They don’t think the economy is likely to get better; they fear it will soon get worse. They lack the optimism that I’ve long associated with youth. This may seem like a subtle shift, but it comes across in conversations, and it’s borne out by research.

It’s true that young people have reasons to feel pessimistic. The news seems unrelentingly bad: wars in Europe and the Middle East, famine in Gaza and Sudan, etc. And today’s young people are the first generation to get their news largely from social media, which amplifies the worst.

Members of so-called Generation Z, born since the mid-1990s, have lived their entire lives under the cloud of climate change, yet their elders seem unable or unwilling to do anything about it. They have never known a time when mass shootings were not a regular feature of American life, an era that began 25 years ago with the Columbine High School shooting. Theirs is the generation of active shooter drills, locked classrooms and metal detectors at the schoolhouse door.

When it comes to politics, they are turned off by election campaigns that resemble mud wrestling contests. Congress’s big recent achievement was to pass a ban on TikTok, a platform that two-thirds of teenagers use regularly. One presidential candidate will be 81 this November, and the other will be 78. Young people don’t see themselves or their concerns reflected in politics.

The economy should be a bright spot: unemployment is low and wages are rising. But young people know that inflation eats away at their entry-level wages and that gains have gone disproportionately to those at the top. High housing costs and interest rates make it hard to envision buying a home. Instead of having careers with reliable pay and benefits, many struggle in the gig economy of temporary work.

This generational pessimism isn’t just an American phenomenon. News accounts describe a similar trend in Canada, Europe, Japan and China. A recent UNICEF survey found that, across high-income countries, six in 10 young people think they will be worse off than their parents.

Finally, it’s impossible to overstate the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on young people. Many lost older relatives to the virus. They watched as government struggled to respond. Their education was disrupted by school closings and shifts to online learning. Friendships and peer networks were severed. The pandemic led to what the U.S. surgeon general called a mental health crisis, an epidemic of sadness and hopelessness.

It’s tempting to point out that previous generations also had their struggles. Young men were drafted to fight in the two world wars, Korea and Vietnam. The Great Depression made today’s financial hardship look like child’s play. We’ve made great advances in education, health care, technology and civil rights.

But it’s upsetting to see young people feeling discouraged. Youth should be a time of optimism. Faith in progress, the idea that future generations will enjoy a life that we can only imagine, is the American creed. We depend on young people to embody that faith and carry it forward.


Lee Hamilton is a distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies and senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.