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public opinion

As an aging Canadian society endures a prolonged global recession, large numbers of us are pessimistic about the future that awaits today's youth, a new poll suggests.

When asked earlier this month to predict what sort of living standards will be enjoyed in the future, 37 per cent of the 1,000 respondents to a national online survey of Canadians representative of the population by Nanos Research said the next generation will be worse off than Canadians are today. By comparison, just 25 per cent said they believed the next generation will be in better shape.

It's a gloomy outlook that may help explain the prolonged demonstrations that have been taking place in Quebec over tuition fee increases, said Nik Nanos, the president of the polling firm.

"Quebeckers are significantly more likely to think they are going to be worse off than their parents. It kind of speaks to why this tuition thing has really struck a nerve," he said. "It's like 'Students first, who's next? It could be me.' "

But the low expectations for the future are not confined to Quebec. Everywhere in the country, except for the prairies, people told the polling company they believe the next generation is facing an economic decline.

"I think what we are seeing is a grinding effect of a prolonged period without significant growth and it's just wearing people down," said Mr. Nanos, who said he did not believe a survey conducted five years ago would have obtained similar results.

There's no real end to the economic downturn in sight, he said. "On top of that, you've got record levels of personal debt, an unstable economy, and governments looking at controlling the costs of many of the services and benefits that they provide."

All of this is causing Canadians to reminisce about the "the good old days" that their parents enjoyed, Mr. Nanos said.

Interestingly, the poll suggests that older people are more pessimistic than younger people about what lies ahead. Just 22.8 per cent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 said they thought their standard of living will get worse. "They are the most optimistic and they are the ones with the least life experience," Mr. Nanos said.

That compares to the more than 44 per cent of people over the age of 50 who foresee fortunes falling for the next generation. In other words, older Canadians are more fearful for their children and grandchildren than they are for themselves.

The poll comes during a week in which new census data showed that the large baby boom generation is starting to leave the work force and that there aren't enough taxpayers coming on line to replace them. Persistently low birth rates will mean future taxpayers will have to carry a heavier load.

The dark outlook expressed in the poll could have implications for incumbent governments, Mr. Nanos said.

"Numbers like these are a bit of a leading indicator because, when people think that they will be better off than their parents, that usually pays political dividends for incumbents in the long term," he said. "When people think that things are getting worse off, that's when people look around to start punishing governments."