Public Opinion Concerning the Long-term Future

Published January 18, 2023
public opinion poll focus group

Pew Research has just released a poll indicating that majorities of Americans believe it is very or extremely likely that, because of climate change, within the next thirty years we will have a lower quality of life, food and water shortages, an increase in refugees and displaced people, and more extreme weather events such as tornadoes, flooding and drought.

It wasn’t so long ago that Americans were confident about the future. But, a variety of indicators point to catatonic pessimism today.

During the 1990s, various polls began asking Americans whether the next generation will be better off. (There are variations on the question, and I’ll discuss some of these variations below.) In the following chart, I plot the optimism ratios of these polls (the percent saying it’s likely the next generation will be better off less the percent saying it’s unlikely). The trend has been from optimistic to pessimistic. Pluralities, if not majorities of American now believe it is unlikely that the future generation will be better off.

Turning to some other polling data, the General Social Survey has been asking about the standard of living parents expect for their children. In fact, the parents in this survey range from having young children to having mature children. Parents of mature children aren’t divulging their expectations of the future, but their observations of the present. So, given the fact that standards of living have been trending up, pluralities and even majorities have always said the standard of living of their children “will be” better off.

The Texas Lyceum Poll has been asking a similar question since 2007; only, instead of asking about the standard of living, the Texas Lyceum Poll has been asking about “life” (an all-encompassing concept). Responses have been less positive than those to the GSS poll.

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has been asking a question about the “children of California” (not specifically the children of respondents). This is similar to the responses displayed in the first chart, from various media polls, concerning the next generation The PPIC poll shows a similar very pessimistic outlook for the long-term future as do the nationwide polls.

These polling data are consistent with more morbid indicators of extreme pessimism, such as suicide (link to CDC report: ) and substance abuse ( link to National Institute of Drug Abuse ). There has also been increased depression ( ); although recent experience has reflected the effects of the pandemic and the shutdown ( ).

While the current scare is climate change, a scan of digital newspapers indicates there has been one after another scare since the mid 19th Century. The following chart tracks the number of pages per 100,000 with the expression “end of the world.” You can clearly see the rise of end-of-the-world thinking during the early part of the 19th Century, culminating in William Miller’s Adventist movement that the world would soon end with the second coming of Jesus Christ. This was supposed to happen in 1844; and, when it didn’t happen, the date was subsequently recalculated a couple of times; and, then explained away as a spiritual event.

The second spurt in end of the world thinking occurred after WWII and concerned the Red Scare. Instead of Jesus coming to usher in a new era, it was a space alien named Klaatu and his robot Gort in the 1951 movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” The second spurt eventually turned into all kinds of disasters, from running out of resources to pollution to global warming and, now, eating bugs. It all might have been amusing, like a disaster movie, but these things were brought into classrooms and used to scare school children.

Just as Adventists recalculated the date of Jesus’ return a couple times, so too do the present generation of the end-of-the-world’ers. In 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists warned us of the imminent collapse of all vital resources. Subsequently, the world’s population and average standard of living increased tremendously. So, in 2017, the scientists gave us a new warning, and changed the date of the end of the world to 2027.

In 1970, the Club of Rome predicted the end of the world by 2000. When that didn’t happen. the Club of Rome recalculated the date as 2072.

Using the Adventists as a model, the formula for re-calculating the end-of-the-world is this: First, re-calculate the date of the end-of-the-world as ten or so years in the future. When a ten-year adjustment is no longer credible, re-calculate the date as fifty or so years in the future. When the long-deferred day of reckoning comes and goes, say the event actually happened, but in some kind of subtle way. True believers will accept the explanation.

What is the chance, after all, that scientists would be absolutely wrong about the way the world works? Besides, it’s just plain common sense – isn’t it? – that everything is about to fall apart. Maybe even, that everything has already fallen apart.