Young people across island becoming increasingly pessimistic about future, study shows

People born in Northern Ireland after 1989 show largest recent declines in optimism, ESRI paper finds

Young people in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are becoming increasingly pessimistic about the future, but Northern Irish youths are significantly more gloomy, according to new research.

People born in Northern Ireland after 1989 have shown the largest recent declines in optimism about their future, their trust in institutions, and the lowest levels of trust in other people, according to the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) paper.

“This may be driven, in part, by an increasing frustration at the ability of the Northern Ireland government to address numerous societal issues due to the continued paralysis in the Northern Ireland Assembly,” says the report, funded by the Government’s Shared Island programme.

People with low education levels in both jurisdictions are significantly more pessimistic, based on their experience of the post-2008 economic crash in the Republic and austerity measures in Northern Ireland.


More educated people in the Republic and North “generally have more positive societal attitudes” and the gap between them and those who have lower educated levels has widened, or recently emerged, the report notes.

“One explanation could be that more educated groups experienced less pecuniary hardship from the recession and recovered more quickly while less educated groups may have felt disenchantment due to greater and more prolonged hardship,” it says.

However, James Laurence of the ESRI cautioned that the report is not claiming that people’s attitudes are caused by low education, but rather education is a proxy for people’s social and economic status and those with lower education have suffered much more in recent years.


The fall in trust in other people among those who are less educated compared with those who are better educated is “the most disconcerting gap”, said the report, and it has continued to widen over the past 20 to 25 years.

“By 2022/23 social trust among the less educated group had still not recovered to its pre-recession period high point while trust among the more educated group had returned, or even exceeded, pre-recession levels,” it adds.

However, optimism levels among more educated people in Northern Ireland have more than halved over the last 20 years, though this group was significantly more optimistic than less-educated peers in the early 2000s.

“By 2018 there was almost no difference between the two groups,” says the report, noting that the fall may be explained by poor salaries available to those with degrees and limited job opportunities in Northern Ireland, especially compared to those living in the Republic.

“More educated groups may have become especially disillusioned by the recent political instability in Northern Ireland, leading to their greater declines in optimism, while less educated groups already had comparatively lower optimism to begin with.”


Most social attitudes in the Republic had recovered to pre-economic crash levels by 2018, though Covid, the cost-of-living crisis, immigration, housing “may all have started to show up as feelings of growing pessimism, powerlessness, and perceived unfairness.

“In addition, the spreading of disinformation via social media may be beginning to erode institutional trust, especially in the media, but also more generally,” it said, noting that trust in media has declined in the Republic since last year.

People’s optimism for next year has fallen sharply, with just 30 per cent now positive about the year, compared with 50 per cent in 2019, while optimism rates in Northern Ireland are now at their lowest rates for 20 years.

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is Ireland and Britain Editor with The Irish Times