If you were to type the keywords "challenges” and "global” into an online search engine, you would come across a whole host of hits. Reports from international not-for-profit organizations, businesses and governments deal with current global concerns from an array of different perspectives. For many years, the GfK Verein has also been asking people all across the globe about the most urgent challenges which currently need to be remedied in their country as part of its "Challenges of Nations" study. Although, as in previous years, the range of top issues remains diverse, two great challenges dominate the global agenda: In four of the countries surveyed, people ranked concerns over employment and high and/or rising prices in first place. However, respondents in some regions see great need for action with regard to struggling health care systems, crime and the challenges arising from immigration and integration.
For around half of Spaniards, one thing is clear: Unemployment is one of the country's most urgent problems. Although the number of people out of work has been on the decline again after the financial crisis of ten years ago, reducing last year to around 17% according to the OECD, this slight downwards trend is not bringing much peace of mind to the general population. Spain has a far higher unemployment rate than all OECD countries on average (5.8% in 2017). Concerns over a generation of young people with poor employment prospects are also playing on the minds of the people, for the situation is particularly challenging for young career starters. In 2017, youth unemployment was at almost 40% (source: OECD). However, it is not just in Spain where people are troubled about the situation on the labor market, but also in other countries, particularly those in Western and Southern Europe: 46% of Italians regard this as the most important task for the government and, at 43%, this figure is not much lower in France. However, the figures for the latter have declined for the second consecutive time. Outside of Europe, Indian respondents are above all worried about unemployment, ranking it as their top concern. Here, around a third of the population is concerned about job security in their country. These are the findings of the "Challenges of Nations” study, in which the GfK Verein asked around 23,000 people from 19 countries between January and April of this year open-ended questions (i.e. non-multiple choice questions) on the most pressing challenges to be currently tackled in the country.
More information on methodology and sampling in the various countries can be found in the study description in the download charts at the end of the article.
In four of the 19 countries surveyed, respondents also placed the issue of prices and purchasing power on the agenda. The populations of Kenya and Indonesia in particular see rising or high prices and/or a reduction in purchasing power as a problem that must be urgently addressed. In total, 39% of the population in both countries see an urgent need for action in this area. Kenyans and Indonesians are particularly preoccupied by expensive food prices. High prices of basic groceries are also troubling respondents in Iran, a country where the inflation rate was in 2017 at 10% and in the years prior was significantly higher. In 2018, the rate has once again risen slightly year on year. Alongside other issues such as the economic and political situation, price increases are concerning the people in Iran so much that nationwide protests took place at the start of 2018 (sources: Spiegel, Tagesschau). Currently, around one in three of respondents place price and purchasing power development top of the to-do list. Conversely, in Russia, the situation has eased somewhat. Indeed, in November 2017, the World Bank predicted that poverty would reduce in light of stagnating inflation, and the people's concerns about price increases have also reduced. However, around one in four still believe the fight against inflation remains the most important area of action for the government.
Money doesn't just get tight when prices rise, but also when illness suddenly turns life upside-down. Who pays for a hospital stay or an operation? How well qualified are the practicing doctors? How high is the immunization rate against severe diseases? These and similar questions in particular are worrying respondents in Brazil. A total of 60% of people rank the restructuring of the healthcare system in first place – and this trend is on the rise! Although the Brazilian public health sector stipulates that all citizens receive free medical treatment when required, in practice the service is often inadequate because resources are not fairly distributed and the public system is under-financed (sources: NCBI, Deutsche Welle). For example, there is a shortage of doctors, well-equipped hospitals and easily navigable roads in order to get to hospitals, particularly in rural areas. Although people in Europe do not need to cope with such basic challenges, there are also countries here where the health system gives cause for concern. More than one in three UK citizens (37%) and more than one in five Poles (22%) believe that this is an area in which the government must intervene. And it appears justifiably so, for alarming news is being reported from both countries: According to an “mdr” report from fall 2017, junior doctors in Poland went on hunger strike to bring attention to severe overworking and chronic underfinancing of the health sector. Moreover, in January 2018, the UK newspaper “The Guardian” reported on patients dying in hospital corridors without receiving care due to a lack of staff.
Although many Germans are surely concerned about the situation in the health sector – keyword "staff shortages” – a different issue dominates the agenda here. How is Germany to cope with all the people seeking asylum here? How can so many people who speak a different language and come from a different culture be integrated? Respondents from Germany in particular, but also from Sweden, want answers to these and similar questions. In 2015, Sweden was one of the main destination countries in Europe for asylum seekers, taking in a greater number than any other EU nation in per capita terms. However, the situation has now fundamentally changed and the country has made conditions for immigration far more stringent. Nevertheless, Swedes still believe that the government must pay particular attention to these issues. A total of 31% placed the challenge of integrating immigrants at first place in the rankings. In Germany, this figure was slightly higher: One in two German respondents believe there is need for action in refugee policy. However, German citizens are no longer quite as worried as they were back in 2016.
In two other of the 19 countries, the fight against crime ranks top of the list of global challenges. People in Mexico are particularly concerned about safety in their country. The number of people worried about this issue has significantly risen year on year: At 57%, more than one in two Mexicans are calling at the moment for more government action. Concern has also risen once again year on year in South Africa. Currently, 43% of people see urgent need for action in light of high crime rates, particularly in cities and on their outskirts.
The issues of politics and government, terrorism, economic stability and family policy occupy first place in the rankings of concerns in one country each. In South Korea, concern over economic stability is a foremost in the collective national conscience. Although the country is on a moderate growth course and President Moon Jae-in is currently working to break up any links between powerful business clans and the government, many people are still yet to benefit from this positive development and there is a lack of a stable middle class (source: Welt). This is probably why 42% believe that the government should continue focusing on economic stability as a top priority. Meanwhile, a different issue of an increasingly sensitive nature is dominating the agenda in Turkey: Terrorism is viewed as the most important challenge by a third of respondents. Indeed, the country has had to mourn numerous deaths from attacks, as highlighted in the "Global Terrorism Index 2017“ from the Australian think tank "Institute for Economics and Peace“ in 2017: With 658 deaths from terrorist attacks in 2016 alone, Turkey was ranked 9th on the index, which explains the population's concern. In the USA, fewer respondents share concern over one top issue. Nevertheless, political developments in the country play on the minds of one in five US respondents. This is probably connected to President Trump, who has caused uproar around the world from his Twitter account on several occasions.
Very different concerns are currently preoccupying Japanese respondents. Here, family policies are once again ranked first, although it is by no means the majority of the population that sees the greatest need for action in this area. A total of 15% of the Japanese population expressed their concern regarding this issue. Indeed, Japan is experiencing a demographic problem: Low birth rates and an aging population are posing a threat to future economic growth. At 941,000, the number of births in 2017 fell to the lowest level in the nation's history (source: Sumikai). Changes to family policies, making it easier for the Japanese to balance their family lives with their careers, could serve as a remedy to this.
When looking at the challenges from a solely European perspective, one thing above all becomes clear: There is no single common issue that Europeans are worried about. In fact, the range of challenges is diverse. While in Spain, Italy and France, concerns about the labor market are above 40% – even over 50% in some cases – this figure is only 6% and 5% in Sweden and the UK respectively. Citizens in Poland and Italy in particular, and the UK above all, believe that restructuring the healthcare system is the top priority, with figures ranging between 22% and 37%. Just 1% of Turkish respondents rated this as the top challenge. The integration of immigrants, by contrast, is by far the top issue for all Europeans, particularly Germans. More than one in two Germans see a need for government action here, followed by Sweden at 31%. And in Italy which, as it borders the Mediterranean, has taken in a particularly large number of refugees, one in four people have concerns. However, in Russia, Poland, Spain and Turkey, immigration and integration is of little concern to the population, with values here in the lower single-digit range.
Not only in Russia are rising prices and the fall in purchasing power particularly worrying people, but also in France and Poland, where this issue is a concern for almost one in five of the population. In contrast, in Sweden, Spain and Turkey, concern here is almost non-existent, with no more than 2% of respondents worried about this issue. Regarding education, Germans in particular see need for action (18%). Somewhat fewer people place this issue top of the agenda in Turkey and Spain, at 14% and 11% respectively. However, only 6% of Swedes and a mere 3% of Poles are concerned about this issue. Germany is also particularly preoccupied about stable political relations when compared with the rest of Europe: A total of 16% of respondents expressed their anxiety, possibly in light of the lengthy government formation following the latest federal elections. Percentages of respondents in Sweden and Russia concerned about this issue are far lower, at 1% and 3% respectively. Nevertheless, Germany is not alone with its worries – people in Spain and Italy are even slightly more concerned about the issue of politics and government, with 17% of people in each of these countries worried about this issue. The Italians are also unhappy front runners when it comes to crime in their country: 17% see a need for action here – in no other European country is this figure so high. Conversely, in Russia and Poland, it appears that hardly anybody is concerned about this.
People in Turkey in particular are worried about economic stability. Overall, 13% want answers and government intervention in this matter. This makes it the only country in the European rankings to register a double-digit value for this concern. When it comes to the issue of poverty, Germany once again occupies first place on the worry scale: One in five citizens stated that fighting poverty was a top challenge – no other European country gets even close to this figure. Conversely, in Spain, corruption bothers people most of all: 28% of Spaniards regard the fight against corruption as the most important task of present times. Spain clearly leads the way ahead of all other European countries here; it is barely on the agenda in the rest of Europe and in five countries, it does not register at all.
The results of the study show not only how important individual issues are in the opinion of citizens, but also the breadth of the spectrum of challenges. People mentioned many and varied problems unprompted, depending on country of origin. Germans stated the greatest number of challenges when compared with other European nations, an average of three in total. This was followed by Italy and France, with 2.4 and 2.3 responses respectively. Then came Spain and the UK, with two responses each, followed by Russia with 1.5 and Turkey with 1.1. The Swedes brought up the rear, coming up with an average of only one issue for which they believe a solution is required.
Previous studies have already shown that Germans come up with a comparatively large number of answers when asked about current challenges. However, the issues highlighted are subject to constant change, as made clear when looking at previous results. Current political and societal developments such as integration as well as discussions on pensions and the danger of poverty amongst the elderly are hotter topics than before, whilst other challenges are less critical in the eyes of German respondents. The challenges arising from immigration – and the efforts aimed at integrating these people that come with it – remain in first place. However, concern here is no longer on the same level as 2016, shortly after hundreds of thousands of people sought refuge in Germany: In that year, a large majority of respondents (83%) ranked this issue first. Today, this figure is significantly lower, at 53%.
Germany's economy is continuing its growth course; unemployment figures remain low on a sustained basis – who is going to worry about impending poverty? Well, one in five Germans, actually. The issue of how to get by financially – and if it is possible to do so at all – is also a source of concern for an increasing number of German citizens. A decade ago, only half as many people rated poverty as a top challenge. It is likely that they are primarily thinking about poverty amongst the elderly: Likewise, one in five believe that there is particularly urgent need for action in the area of pensions. It is clear that there is an increasingly aging population, resulting in fewer and fewer young shoulders on which to place the burden of pensions. At first glance, the growing concern regarding poverty and pensions is at odds with the trend that can be seen regarding unemployment. In this area, concerns are receding: Only around one in ten Germans believe this is a problem that must be urgently solved. Ten years ago, this figure was four times as high. Indeed, unemployment in Germany is low but the fact that people feel secure in their jobs is not changing anything regarding their fear of the pension shortfall because, despite longer contribution years for the working population, funding in old age is no longer sufficiently guaranteed for everybody.
Slightly fewer changes can be seen in terms of education policy. Nonetheless, concern here grew from a previous level of 12% to 18% most recently. Although Germany has improved regarding the academic success of socially disadvantaged children and young people, as the OECD found in a special evaluation of the Pisa Study (source: OECD), there is still a way to go to achieve equal opportunities. Moreover, the Deutscher Lehrerverband (German teachers’ association) is complaining of severe staff shortages, above all in primary and special education schools (source: tagesschau). More striking, however, is the increased concern regarding politics and the government. A total of 16% of Germans brought up this issue, twice as many as in 2008. The tough struggle for forming a government following the most recent federal election has doubtless shaped peoples’ views. The rise in concern over healthcare is highly likely due to staff shortages, which are being discussed with increasing frequency. How are all those elderly and sick people to receive care when not enough young people are opting for a career in the healthcare system? Such issues are currently worrying 14% of German citizens. In 2017, this was a top issue for only 5%. Concerns over price stability and purchasing power have remained stable year on year. In 2017, 12% stated that this was a challenge and the figure has remained the same this year. However, concern has grown; in 2016, this figure was a mere 8%.
Students sleeping on a different friend's sofa every two weeks, couples unable to move to meet the needs of their growing families and pensioners no longer able to pay the rising rents for their beloved home – such stories are being reported by the media with increasing frequency. Due to the steady financial development and low interest rates, property prices in Germany have shot up in recent times. This is particularly felt by people in urban areas. Concern has now correspondingly risen for the third consecutive occasion: A total of 12% of respondents cited rent and housing problems as the most important challenge. In 2008, this figure was only 1%. However, slightly more peace of mind can be seen when it comes to the fight against crime. Last year, this was a top issue for 16% of Germans, while the equivalent figure today stands at just 11%.
The issues which appear particularly important to us are therefore subject to constant change. The future is also certain to present people with a great range of challenges to face, as the poet Heinrich Heine so elegantly expressed at the start of the 19th century in the third part of his "Reisebilder": "Every age has its tasks and it is by solving them that mankind moves forward."
Data source: ‘Challenges of Nations 2018’, a study of GfK Verein.
Responsible for the article and contact person for any queries regarding Compact: Claudia Gaspar, GfK Verein.
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