Optimism rules the day

In the run-up to the forthcoming general election, many analysts will be trying to understand what is driving optimism and pessimism among voters and in what way this will influence their voting decisions. It is not an easy task, because of the complexity of the factors that have an impact on such individual feelings.

Even before the COVID pandemic, people in Malta, like those in the rest of the European Union, were facing many challenges. These ranged from the consequences of new technologies and automation, through climate change, migration, and economic growth, to the rule of law. The pandemic also raised the issues of health and social welfare.

The way these issues are perceived by people depends on demographic factors, since it is obvious that the positive effect of social optimism is high in youth, falls in middle age and rises again in old age. This is quite evident from opinion polls published by local newspapers or by the Eurobarometer surveys, where views regarding economic and social issues are considerably influenced by the age of the respondents.

On the other hand, some feelings of social optimism or pessimism may be primarily influenced by the characteristics of the issues themselves, rather than by the age of the respondents in a survey. For example, if the country has a stressed labour market, people without skills or living in a household that is in a bad financial situation would be pessimistic, most probably irrespective of their age profile. Similarly, during the height of the COVIDcrisis, old people were bound to feel more pessimistic than young ones.

The low unemployment and good economic prospects are clearly playing a decisive role in peoples’ optimism about the future, though this is somewhat dampened by pessimism among workers with relatively low wages. The handling of the COVID pandemic has also contributed to optimistic feelings about the country’s ability to cope with a severe health challenge.

The low unemployment and good economic prospects are clearly playing a decisive role in peoples’ optimism about the future.

Though society is changing rapidly, so far cohesiveness has contributed to make people feel a sense of belonging to the community. Attachment to family and social groups is a significant factor in affecting optimism or pessimism. So is the degree of life satisfaction or happiness. Again, various surveys have shown that these are quite high in Malta.

If there is something which tends to affect negatively the general picture is the feeling among people that their voice does not count that much and that it is not heard enough in decision-making processes. If not enough attention is paid to the level of trust in institutions and satisfaction with democracy, there is bound to be an adverse effect on the level of optimism in the country.

It is rather paradoxical that many social studies in different countries have pointed to two dichotomies in peoples’ perceptions in advanced countries. The first one is that there is a sharp contrast between personal and social pessimism, in that people tend to be personally optimistic but socially pessimistic. This tends to make most people see their personal future as better than it probably will be, which is crucial for people to lead a healthy and happy life.

On the other hand, the second dichotomy is that the more affluent a society becomes, the more people look at the future in negative terms. Rather strange, you might say. But social scientists have different explanations for this perception. 

They attribute it to the fact that heightened social awareness makes people recognise the large number of problems that exist, fostering a fear that there might be a social collapse. Or it could be that social progress makes people more aware when there are failures, making them more pessimistic.

One only has to look at a Eurobarometer survey to realise how much optimism or pessimism depend on the dimension of the measurement being used. Normally, such surveys are conducted in three different dimensions.

Firstly, there is the emotional dimension, that is asking somebody about his subjective feelings about something. This could be a question about whether the respondent is optimistic, fairly optimistic or very optimistic about the future, say with respect to the economy. 

Secondly, the evaluative dimension – people may be asked to judge whether something is going in the right or in the wrong direction, say the country as a whole. 

And thirdly, the cognitive dimension would apply if people are asked whether their expectations about life in general may be better, worse or the same over a period of time, say the next 12 months.

What can we say about feelings of optimism or pessimism in Malta?

If one reads the so-called “independent” media, most of which are in fact anti-government media, one would conclude that the Maltese must be some of the most pessimistic people in the world. They would be if they were really being influenced by claims that the economy is about to collapse, that rule of law is non-existent, that democracy is a sham, and that the justice system is a mockery.  These are the staple diet of Repubblika and a host of bloggers who are given great prominence by the said independent media.

What are the people saying? 

Even if one forgets the opinion polls about how people intend to vote, there are other surveys which indicate what the situation is. 

Thus, a survey by Eurofound of peoples’ opinions about prospects for future generations found that French people are 4.7 times more pessimistic about the life of their children in future than the Maltese.   

Even people in Luxembourg, which has the highest per capita income in the EU, were 1.6 times more pessimistic about the future than their Maltese counterparts.

Looking at the Eurofound Social Optimism Index, Malta ranks third in the EU, after Ireland and Denmark.

Obviously, one would not expect this if one relies on Times of Malta blogger Colm Regan, who regularly rubbishes Malta. He thought he was hilarious, and most of the readers of The Times were over the moon, when he poked fun at Prime Minister Abela’s speech at COP26, even though Ireland emits 29% more CO2 per head than Malta does.

The proportion of people in Malta feeling very optimistic or optimistic about the future versus those feeling very pessimistic or pessimistic, is the fifth highest in the EU.

If one then looks at the pessimism gap, that is the gap between personal and societal pessimism, the finding of the Eurofound survey is that Malta has the second lowest gap after Luxembourg. In these two countries, some 6.5% believe that their personal life will get worse in the next 12 months versus 13-15% who think that things are going in the wrong direction. This means that personal and societal pessimism coincide greatly in the two countries, whereas in Italy, for example, some 12.8% of people feel that their personal life will get worse in the next 12 months versus almost 55% who think that things are going in the wrong direction. Some 7% of Regan’s Irish co-nationals are pessimistic about their personal lives versus 25% who believe that things are going in the wrong direction.

From which I conclude that Regan should perhaps spend more time writing about Ireland than Malta. Perhaps he finds that no newspaper in Ireland would give him as much space as The Times does in Malta. Or perhaps he’s more comfortable lecturing at the University of Malta than at Trinity College, though I have some difficulty understanding why, when he regularly compares Malta to Zimbabwe.

Anyway, though it would be foolish not to admit that Malta does have societal problems which need to be addressed vigorously, it is not that the Maltese themselves are so pessimistic that they would want to emigrate en masse to Ireland. 

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