The latest report in the British Council’s Next Generation series takes an in-depth look at the hopes, fears and dreams of young people in Turkey. It reveals worrying levels of distrust towards the UK and ambivalence towards the EU. Yet it also shows frustrated desires for better education which may suggest opportunities for improving the relationship between the two countries. 

Young Turks

Turkey has been through major changes in recent years. The country has seen great economic progress, but also profound social change and controversial domestic and foreign policies. In 2016 it experienced an attempted coup; it is witnessing unrest amongst its Kurdish population, and is strongly affected by the conflict in Syria (it currently hosts 3 million Syrian refugees). It is now often seen as moving away from its traditional close alignment with other NATO members, and from its desire for future EU accession. 

The British Council’s Next Generation Turkey report examines the views of young Turkish people on a variety of issues. When it comes to attitudes to the UK, the results are worrying. 29% found the UK ‘not attractive’, compared to 11% who found us attractive (though the figures were even starker for the US and Germany). Feelings towards British people themselves were more positive: 42% trusted them, as opposed to 33% who distrusted them. (Attitudes towards many other major countries were more evenly split, although Iranians were distrusted by 35% but only trusted by 7%.) 

These results compare with other data gathered for the British Council (From the Outside In (2017)), which also shows that the UK performs relatively badly amongst young Turkish people when compared to other major countries in terms of desire to visit or do business here and trust in British people, institutions, and government. There is some evidence that these negative attitudes go back as far as the First World War, with 34% of those surveyed for the British Council’s Remember the World as Well as the War report (2014) claiming that Britain’s involvement in the conflict and the subsequent peace negotiations (which resulted in the dismemberment of the Turkish Ottoman empire) still had a significant negative effect on their views of the UK today. 

There is everything to play for when it comes to persuading Turkey’s next generation of the benefits of closer alignment with Europe and the West

The Next Generation Turkey report suggests that young Turkish people identify strongly with their country (with 74% perceiving it as a source of their identity – more than religion or ethnicity). When it comes attitudes to possible EU membership, those asked were roughly evenly split between positive, negative, and unsure. Interestingly, views of the UK’s overall attractiveness increased as a result of the EU referendum, with 44% of young Turkish people questioned about it saying that the result had a positive impact on their overall perceptions of the UK, compared to 12% who said it had a negative impact. It seems that there is everything to play for when it comes to persuading Turkey’s next generation of the benefits of closer alignment with Europe and the West.

Declining Engagement, Rising Populism?

In common with many countries in the Mediterranean and Middle East, Turkey is currently experiencing a major demographic bulge, with half of its population of 80 million people under the age of 30. As elsewhere, however, this comes with high levels of youth unemployment, so that over a quarter of its 18-30 year olds (and a third of its young women) are not in education or employment. 

The report shows that young Turkish people are broadly optimistic about their future, but that better education is a top priority. Two thirds of those surveyed viewed a good education as critical to their future success. Indeed 62% identified it as increasing the respect in which society held them - more than any other factor. Yet they viewed the current education system as unsatisfactory, and were more worried about not being able to provide their children with a good education than any other concern. More therefore needs to be done to provide quality education to young people in Turkey and to prepare them for the world of work, including improved training in English language. Strikingly, half of those surveyed saw moving to a western country as necessary to get a good education. 

These findings are of direct relevance to the UK. Again, these results are particularly interesting when put alongside the findings in the British Council’s recent report on international youth perceptions (From the Outside In (2017)), which found that 62% of young Turkish people agreed that the UK has world leading universities. In this respect, the UK was second (after the US) as the destination where they wanted to pursue their education. The research suggests that they would be keen on returning to Turkey after completing their education, rather than re-settling. Those surveyed also viewed English language skills as vital for success in both the national and the global labour market. Clearly there is an important demand here that the UK can help to meet, to the potential mutual benefit of both countries. This might also go some way to addressing the trust deficit highlighted by the research. 

The Next Generation Turkey report highlights other interesting social and political changes. Young Turkish people are shown as navigating a balanced course combining autonomous individualism with a desire to remain committed to their family and community and keenness to marry and have their own families. 73% of single young people in work continue to live with their families. Over 80% trusted their parents’ opinions (compared to just 2% who said they trusted those of politicians). Yet many also expressed aspirations to move away from home and pursue personal, educational and professional ambitions. 

Some have suggested that the large influx of refugees from Syria may have helped fuel populist sentiments in Turkey as many argue has happened in Western Europe

The next generation in Turkey is more open to diversity than many of their forebears. There are still many signs of prejudice towards others, including Syrian refugees, non-Muslims, and members of the LGBT community (75% said they would not like to have homosexuals as neighbours, though this was lower than for the general population of all ages). Indeed, some have suggested that the large influx of refugees from Syria may have helped fuel populist sentiments in Turkey as many argue has happened in Western Europe. There was, however, strong support for challenging negative gender stereotypes. Furthermore, many of those asked urged government and civil society to do more to fight hate speech towards minorities, and to be aware of how social media could play an important role in doing so. 

At the same time, young Turkish people are less directly engaged with politics than their predecessors. For example, they are much less likely than their parents to be members of political parties. On the Global Youth Development Index, Turkey ranks 177th for Civic Participation, and 100th for Political Participation. While largely disillusioned with traditional politics, however, they are by no means disengaged from political issues or a desire to make a difference to their communities or nation. More should be done to empower young people to be independent and active citizens, including more support and engagement with them from civil society institutions, in order to allow them to have their voices heard.

In the post-Brexit world, where the UK’s bilateral relationships with large emerging economies will be more important than ever, these findings taken together suggest challenges of perception that should if possible be overcome, but also important opportunities for doing so. Exploring ways to meet the huge demand for education and the English language amongst Turkey’s booming youth population may be an excellent place to start.