28 Aug 2020

New analysis has found that UK teenagers have the lowest levels of life satisfaction across most of Europe1, with researchers from The Children’s Society warning that a particularly British fear of failure could partly be to blame.  

The charity’s annual Good Childhood Report has examined international data2 and found a strong link between life satisfaction and fear of failure. Children aged 15 in the UK had the greatest fear of failure, and the lowest overall life satisfaction across the 24 European countries in the study. Over one in three UK 15 year olds (36%) scored low on life satisfaction3.  

In contrast, children from Romania felt relatively little fear of failure and had the highest score for overall life satisfaction. Only one in seven (15%) of Romanian 15 year olds scored low on life satisfaction.4 

One British young person summarised the issue, saying: “There is a lot of pressure on young people to succeed at things in life. But what I would like young people to know is that if you don’t succeed the first time, you are learning, and by learning, you are succeeding.”   

The UK also ranked last out of 24 European countries for children’s overall sense of purpose, with just over two in five (43%) saying they felt their life lacked clear meaning or purpose. 

There was a marked difference in well-being between genders at age 15. In the UK, there was a nine percentage point difference between the proportion of girls (23%) and boys (14%) with low well-being scores across at least three of the four measures (life satisfaction, happiness, sadness and sense of purpose). This compared to only a two percentage point difference in France, Portugal and Spain (where 8% of girls and 6% of boys had low scores across three out of the four measures). 

The charity also found evidence that changes in child poverty within countries were linked to life satisfaction, which might go some way to explaining why the UK had such poor levels of life satisfaction compared to elsewhere in Europe. Between 2015 and 2018, the UK had the largest increase in relative child poverty - around 4 percentage points, while on average, levels of child poverty fell by around 2 percentage points across the 24 countries.   

All these findings are backed up by the latest trends in children’s well-being in the UK presented by The Children’s Society, which show a continued decline in children’s (aged 10 to 15) average happiness with their lives as a whole, including sustained declines in happiness with school and friends. Between 2009 and 2017, the number of UK children aged 10 to 15 who were unhappy with their friends rose from an estimated 86,000 (1.9%) to around 155,0005 (3.5%)   

Strong friendships are a key ingredient of children’s well-being, yet the report found that worryingly 132,0006 (3%) children in the UK said they had no close friends they could talk to if they are in trouble.  

One child, aged 14, commented: “They may feel like they can't trust their friends, or be serious with them. Having fun, laughing, joking are all great parts of having friends but they're not nearly as important as having someone you can trust or knowing someone will be there for you no matter what.” 

Mark Russell, Chief Executive at The Children’s Society, said:    

“We all want our children to grow up happy, and as a society we can’t be content with children in the UK being the most unsatisfied with their lives in Europe. It has to change. 

“Even before the pandemic, which we know has taken a huge toll on our children’s well-being, many felt their life didn’t have a sense of purpose. We believe it is not only a fear of failure – which in previous research we found was higher amongst those living in poverty -  but also rising child poverty levels that could partly be to blame.  

“Modern life has been chipping away at our children’s happiness during the last decade. We need action and for the government to provide long term investment to stop this toxic trend. As we emerge from the coronavirus crisis and children return to the classroom, we must hit the restart button. That is why The Children’s Society is also calling for a national measure of children’s well-being, so we can recognise what the issues are in their lives. We must listen to children’s voices and work with them to shape changes in schools, communities and society that will support them to have happy and fulfilled childhoods.” 




Media enquiries   

For more information, please call The Children’s Society’s Media & PR Team on 020 7841 4422 or email media@childrenssociety.org.uk. For out-of-hours enquiries please call 07810 796 508.  

Notes to Editor  

The Good Childhood Report is available to download as a PDF here

Our analysis in this chapter compares the UK with other European countries – 23 in the case of The Programme for International Assessment (PISA) and 14 in the case of Children’s Worlds. PISA provides comparisons across all four nations/jurisdictions.

PISA is mainly focused on children’s academic achievement. But it increasingly also asks them about their subjective experiences of life as a whole. The most recent data for the seventh wave was collected in 2018

PISA asked young people to respond on a four-point scale from ‘Strongly disagree’ to ‘Strongly agree’ to three statements about failure7. The results were then used to create a standardised measurement.  15 year olds from Switzerland, Romania and Austria had the lowest fear of failure scores and only Malta came close to the UK score. 

Alongside fear of failure, the report refers to other evidence on pressures at school for 15-year-olds. Data from 2017/2018 Health Behaviours in School-Aged Children Survey (HBSC), revealed the United Kingdom had some of the highest levels of school work pressure reported by 15 year olds. England came 3rd out of 45 countries, with 74% of girls and 62% of boys reporting feeling pressured by school work. Wales then ranked fifth (75% of girls and 55% of boys) and Scotland sixth (74% of girls and 53% of boys).

Eurostat data8 on the percentage of children under 18 at risk of poverty show 19.9% of children (aged under 18) at risk of poverty (with a cut-off of 60% median equivalised income) in 2015 in the UK and 23.5% in 2018. There had been a decrease in the proportion of children at relative risk of poverty in 13 of the other countries included in the analysis. 

Understanding Society is a longitudinal study covering households in the UK. The survey is conducted annually and covers a representative, random sample of households, collecting the responses of adults and children aged 10 to 15. The analysis included in The Good Childhood Report 2020 is based on responses from children only to a Youth questionnaire. The youth questionnaire contains questions on subjective well-being and five other aspects of children’s lives – family, friends, appearance, school work and school. The survey uses a 7-point scale to measure children’s happiness which The Children’s Society convert into a score on an 11-point scale (0 to10). 

Analysis of the latest data from Understanding Society (for wave 9 or 2018/18) are based on weighted data from an overall sample of 2,800 children aged 10 to 15 who completed the survey. Data are weighted to ensure that the analysis is as representative of the general population as possible.  

Comparing responses to the question in Understanding Society on happiness with friends by demographic characteristics, showed that there were significantly more girls, in particular, scoring on or below the midpoint for happiness with friends in 2017-18 (compared to when the survey commenced in 2009-10). There had also been significant increases over the same period in the proportions of children aged 12 to 15 scoring on or below the midpoint.

Population estimates have been produced using relevant ONS population estimates. Source: ONS (2020) ‘ONS UK population estimates, 1838 to 2019’ Available here  


About The Good Childhood Report 

  • The Good Childhood Report 2020 is the ninth in a series of annual reports published by The Children's Society about how children in the UK feel about their lives.