The world’s millennials see catastrophic war on the horizon, including the real likelihood of a nuclear strike.


A new survey of more than 16,000 millennials in 16 countries found heavy pessimism about conflict among people ages 20 to 35 – but also pearls of hope.


The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) survey found that most respondents – 54% – believe it’s likely a nuclear attack will occur in the next decade. And even more millennials think it’s more likely than not that there will be a third world war in their lifetime.


These findings are deeply troubling, but perhaps not surprising given the recent news headlines. Yet, our survey is not based on the news in 2020. Indeed, we asked our questions last year, which signals that this feeling of pessimism and distrust is, I fear, a trend, and one which we must heed.


As world leaders gather in Davos this week, the views of the younger generation must be kept in mind.


Millennials also identify corruption, unemployment and poverty as chief concerns. This aligns exactly with the key issues that communities affected by conflict report that they routinely face. Humanitarians, politicians, advocates cannot ignore these voices; we must urgently address these realities.


While these are difficult, entrenched issues, I remain optimistic that progress can be made. We have solid foundations: 70% of millennials said they care about the suffering of others in conflict, while 74% said that most wars can be avoided. Those answers contain the seeds of positivity that can eventually ameliorate the suffering of people in conflict.

war millennials conflict

How young people view conflict


The modern world’s endorsement of a humane approach to conflict was made by all States more than 70 years ago through the Geneva Conventions. We’re asking millennials to continue that long tradition and stand up for the basic values underpinning the rules of war. They are critical for humanity’s future. They must be maintained for the generations to come.


Still, it’s clear we should not ignore the often-negative outlook of the world’s young adults. Their foreboding, I suspect, reflects what they see and hear: dehumanizing rhetoric in their online communities and from country leaders. They see stark polarization in political communities that would rather paint opponents as the enemy than find common ground to advance society.


While some see value in cheap political point scoring, dehumanising language can be deadly. We have seen in many places around the globe how quickly online hatred can fuel real-life violence and persecution.


If our survey respondents are correct in predicting a new catastrophic war, the suffering of people across countries and regions would be immense. Even considering the major wars of today – Yemen, Syria, South Sudan - conflicts are growing more complex given climate change, unpredictable global power dynamics, and increasing fragility. Upholding human decency and dignity in this environment will be difficult enough.


I’m concerned that 36% of millennials believe captured enemy combatants should not be allowed to contact their relatives – a basic right under international humanitarian law; 37% believe torture is acceptable under some circumstances, even after the UN convention banning torture is explained to them.


The picture is not entirely bleak. The survey held other good news: 75% of respondents said there is a need to impose limits on war via adherence to the Geneva Conventions. That number was even higher in the U.S., where 80% of American respondents said wars should have limits.


What more can be done to avert deadly conflict and to encourage citizens around the world to insist that political and military leaders adhere to the laws of war during combat?


A clear and fundamental answer is political solutions that prevent or quickly end wars, as well as political and military commanders who are committed to adhering to the established laws of war that have been agreed upon by every country in the world.


Military forces up and down the chain of command must be exposed to the laws of war, and commanders must be encouraged to ensure their troops follow them.


Dialogue with powers that have influence can help reinforce the laws of war that help protect civilian life. The preservation of human dignity and the protection of human beings in times of armed conflict have strong foundations in precepts of the major world religions. Dialogue between humanitarian organizations and religious leaders can build solid common ground and can pass powerful messages to communities, arms carriers and decision-makers.


Millennials should not feel helpless or hopeless in the face of possible future conflict. Vocal support for the laws of war and even the simple step of insisting on civil discourse can help ensure that a future nuclear strike or the feared third world war never take place.


Peter MaurerPresident, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)