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THE END OF PROGRESS? – March 9, 2012


[Ottawa – March 9, 2012] – In the spirit of moving polling from the realm of the mercurial fluctuations of politics, we conclude this series with a long look backward and a long look forward. Using this generational lens, we will show how the rear view and future view are clouded and darkening, and that the gloomiest perspectives are centered in what are typically the most optimistic portions of society, the next generations. Using time series, we will chart how this backward and forward looking has changed over the past several years. Sadly, the picture is not at all pretty and we believe it demands clear recognition and a will to try and staunch and reverse a pattern of decline which appears to be spelling a belief in the end of progress.

For a very long time, members of advanced western societies have always had resolute belief in progress and a better future. Western civilizations have seen an astonishing rise in all indicators of human well being in those societies. In the United States, the “American dream” produced a period of unrivalled economic and military dominance with incomes and life spans continuing to rise as racial prejudice and illiteracy declined. Canada claimed even more spectacular human outcomes and was rewarded with number one status on the Human Development Index on a number of occasions. In the seventies and even eighties, Canada and the United States were very near the top of the world in standard of living and material well being. In recent years there has been a growing recognition that this dominance and belief in the inevitability of progress, may not be something the next generation can count on. The ascendance of new economic powers, notably China, and the failures of western foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan have coincided with a cooling and retraction of both European and North American economic dominance.

These growing worries about the future viability of western civilisation may well be shattering some of the basic beliefs and motivations which underpinned its very success. In a period roughly coinciding with the new century and September 11th, we have seen a serious erosion of the notion of inevitable progress and dominance in the west.

In Canada, this longer term erosion of confidence in the inevitability of progress and a better future has been taking root. Looking back, one-third of Canadians believe they are better off than the last generation, compared to 37 per cent who say they are worse off. Looking forward, however, Canadians feel the next generation will be worse off by a margin of four to one.

It would seem that despite short term comfort in the fact that our banking system or somewhat less public debt and marginally lower unemployment rates, this foreboding sense of relative decline has not escaped the public. Not only is our rear view now more likely to be one of regret and decline our view of the longer term future is unremittingly grim. Worse, these negative views are most entrenched amongst the Gen X, Gen Y, and millennial cohorts who will shoulder both the responsibilities and fruits of the future. These outlooks have been getting worse not better over the last several years and the sense of up and down cycles may be giving way to one of a long term maelstrom.

To make matters even worse, the next generations are losing faith not only in the economy, but public institutions and democracy. There is a sense that the political order and government favour the old over the young. If the engines of our success were values which favoured hard work, knowledge, and innovation, it is hard to see how a sense of inevitable and pervasive decline, coupled with a belief that what little progress exists is being pocketed by an increasingly narrow fraction at the top of society, will inspire motivation and confidence. Once such a vicious circle of despair takes hold it may well be part of a self fulfilling prophecy. So it may now be time to squarely confront the reality of a new generational tension rooted in a belief in the end of progress.

Click here for the full report: Full Report (March 9, 2012)

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