What Worries the World in 2017?

Every month across the year, our What Worries the World survey series has asked an online sample of over 18,000 citizens in 26 core countries about the biggest worries for their nation, presenting them with a list of 17 concerns ranging from crime and violence to childhood obesity.

The headline figures from the seventh year of our polling series are:

  1. The world has become marginally more optimistic: 40% believe their country is headed in the right direction, up from 37% in 2016.
  2. Unemployment remains the biggest worry for 2017 overall, but its lead over poverty/inequality and corruption diminished over the year.
  3. This fall in concern about unemployment has been driven by big drops in worry about job security in established nations including Canada and the US.

This year’s report also investigates who is most worried about each of the biggest three concerns in the poll – unemployment, corruption and political scandal, and poverty/inequality.

It finds that worry about unemployment is the most evenly spread across different countries. By contrast, concern about poverty/inequality is more of a concern for citizens in established economies, while corruption and political scandal is a bigger issue for those in emerging economies.

Are we on the right track?

In addition to asking about citizens’ concerns, we also ask for their assessment of the direction of travel of their country – whether they feel things are heading in the right direction, or if they are off on the wrong track. In 2017 we witnessed a three percentage-point rise in optimism – 40% of global participants felt that their country was headed in the right direction, compared to 37% the previous year. Chinese citizens remain the most upbeat with 90% optimistic about the direction of their country, improving on their 2016 score of 88%.

Still, a majority – 60% – of the global public are pessimistic. At the foot of the league table of optimism we see some familiar names from 2016; less than 15% of citizens in Brazil, Mexico and South Africa are happy with the direction of their country, close to their scores for the previous year. Italy is a new joiner, with their level of optimism slipping from 20% to 15%, while the French have doubled their optimism over the same period, from 13% to 26%.

The pattern of national optimism we observe echoes the “Optimism Divide” found in our Global Trends Survey report – optimism abounds among those living in the emerging markets of Asia, while the inhabitants of established economies – especially those in Europe – are more pessimistic.

2017 in review

December 2017 was a significant month for the What Worries The World series – for the first time since the survey began in March 2010, unemployment was not the number one issue worldwide. Thirty-three per cent cited unemployment as a worry, putting it in third position behind both corruption and financial/political scandals (the new leader on 36%) and poverty and
social inequality (34%).

One of the factors driving the end of the dominance of unemployment is a sharp reduction in concern in established markets. Between January and December 2017, concern about unemployment fell by 17 percentage points in Canada, 11 points in the US, ten in Poland and nine in Russia and Sweden. By contrast, the biggest increases in concern occurred in emerging markets – with rises of six percentage points in China, and four points in Turkey and Peru (although unemployment is not the biggest worry in any of these countries).

The impact of this shift in global concern is masked when we look at the scores across 2017 as a whole; here unemployment retains a slim lead on 36%. Corruption and financial/political scandal scores 34% over the year, and poverty/social inequality stands at 33%.

Elsewhere in the ranking there has been limited movement since last year. Crime and violence remains the fourth-biggest worry on the same score as 2016, and healthcare has risen by two percentage points to 23% but remains fifth. Childhood obesity and access to credit remain the least pressing worries, on three and two per cent respectively.

Looking to 2018

What are we worrying about in 2018? The findings of the initial few months suggest we have entered a new phase, where global concern is no longer dominated by the single issue of unemployment, but instead different countries prioritise one of three key concerns depending on national and regional factors. As we have set out the three biggest worries – unemployment, corruption and inequality – all have different bases of support, and this is unlikely to change in the near term.

It also seems unlikely that any other worries will rise to challenge the supremacy of the top three. Crime and violence, and healthcare, respectively the fourth- and fifth-biggest issues, have polled at about the same level since the What Worries the World poll began in 2010, and can be expected to continue along those lines.

There appears to be slightly more movement when it comes to optimism that things are headed in the right direction. Although small, the two-percentage point shift in favour of optimism observed since 2016 is likely to continue, especially against a background of ebbing concern about unemployment and a more positive global economic environment. The fact that our basket of countries contains several established Eurozone economies, that have previously been pessimistic but are now experiencing growth, will also help drive the rise in optimism – although it remains unlikely that the global balance will fully tip in favour of optimism any time soon.