Barely two in five people believe their families will be better off in the future, according to a regular global survey that also identified growing levels of distrust in institutions among low-income households.
The Edelman Trust Barometer, which for over two decades has polled the attitudes of thousands of people, found that economic pessimism was at its highest in some of the world's top economies such as the US, Britain, Germany and Japan.
It further confirmed how societies have been divided by the impacts of the pandemic and inflation. Higher-income households still broadly trust institutions such as government, business, media and NGOs. But alienation is rife among low-income groups.
"This has really shown the mass class divide again," said Richard Edelman, whose Edelman communications group published the survey of over 32,000 respondents in 28 countries interviewed from Nov 1 to Nov 28 of last year.
"We saw it in the pandemic because of differential outcomes in terms of health, now we see it in terms of the impact of inflation," he added. The World Health Organisation and others have noted the higher toll of the pandemic on the poor, while those on low incomes suffer most from costlier basic items.
Globally, only 40% agreed with the statement "my family and I will be better off in five years" compared to 50% a year before, with advanced economies most downbeat: the US (36%), Britain (23%), Germany (15%) and Japan (9%).
Fast-growing economies saw much higher scores - albeit lower than last year - with only China bucking the trend with a one percentage point rise to 65% despite the economic disruption caused by its now-relaxed "zero Covid" policies.
Such anxieties reflect deep uncertainty about the state of the global economy as the Ukraine war continues and central banks hike their lending rates to tame inflation. The World Bank on Tuesday warned it could tip into recession this year.
While Edelman's longstanding Trust Index registered an average 63% trust level in key institutions among high-income US respondents, that figure fell to just 40% among low-income groups. Similar income-based divergences were present in Saudi Arabia, China, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.
In some, that hinted at outright polarisation, with high levels of respondents agreeing with the statement "I see deep divisions, and I don’t think we’ll ever get past them" in countries as different as Argentina, the US, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and Colombia.
While such attitudes inevitably reflect current events, the ebbing of trust in government in particular has been a key theme of the survey for several years, with its trust levels this year sharply lower than relatively healthy ones scored by business.
Edelman attributed that to positive perceptions of company furlough schemes during the pandemic, applause for company moves to exit Russia over the Ukraine war, and a sense that firms have started to up their games on diversity and inclusion.
He said respondents by a six-to-one margin wanted business to engage more on issues from reskilling to climate change and suggested this should encourage them to brush off accusations such as the "woke capitalism" charge voiced by US Republicans.
"I think our data give a lot of ammunition to the CEOs who have recognised that business has to be an important force in societal issues," he said.