Throughout 2018, the Trajectory Optimism Index has provided fascinating insight on consumer sentiment in the UK. Despite the most recent data showing a rise in overall optimism the trend for 2018 is a downward one. As the year has worn on, consumers have become increasingly pessimistic about the future, adopting a recessionary mindset and cutting back on spending.
The drivers of optimism are not purely financial and neither are the manifestations. One of the most remarkable and consistent trends in 2018’s data is the steady rise in the population who say they have little or no freedom of choice and control in the way their life turns out. In February, the proportion who said this was minute – just 5%. By October, this had trebled to 15%; still small, but now a significant minority of the population who feel a strong sense of powerlessness and futility.
This loss in personal autonomy and control is concentrated amongst the younger cohorts. In February, just 5% of Gen Y (aged 23-37) agreed they had little or no choice and control, compared to 9% of Gen X (38-53) and 5% of Baby Boomers (54-70). For the two older generations, the next nine months saw rises of 5%. For Gen Y, this proportion increased more than four-fold, to 22%.
This disparity is evident at the other end of the scale too, with the proportion of Gen Y feeling they have a high level of control falling from 38% to 30% in the same period, compared to rises for the other generations in the sample. The result is a widening Autonomy Gap in the UK: younger generations are more likely to feel that they are not in control of their futures, while older generations are increasingly empowered.
This gap makes some sense if we consider the diverging values of these generations. Major demographic exercises in recent years have been more than just set-piece political events. They have exposed the deep cultural faultiness in the country, dichotomies with an arsenal of monikers: remainers and leavers, social conservatives and social liberals, globalists and nationalists, somewheres and anywheres.
This is nothing less than a battle for the future. As recent polling conducted in the wake of the draft Brexit agreement shows, the divisions cut sharply across generational lines.
There are minor differences by other demographic breaks, but none as stark as the differences in opinion by age group, with under 25s and over 65s diametrically opposed in their preferences on the country’s next step – just as they were in 2016 and 2017. In the minds of Gen Y, Brexit anxiety is manifesting as a rising sense of powerlessness, futility and a lack of control over their future. At this point it is important to remind ourselves of the myth of a generational experience. Although a similar age, this cohort of under 40s do not have a singular outlook or circumstance. But there is an overwhelming level of agreement here.
The Autonomy Gap should concern all businesses seeking to attract Gen Y customers. Freedom of choice and control is a major contributor to overall optimism, which in turn influences spending habits and consumer confidence. Gen Y’s consumer confidence and spending optimism is currently defying gravity and remains just about positive. Further disruption in the months ahead – and further losses in the culture wars – will bring that crashing down.