The 2015 Lowy Institute Poll was released this morning. It's the eleventh annual Lowy Institute Poll.

It goes without saying that every year there are some fascinating results which shine a light on how Australians feel about critical foreign policy issues. With our established tracking questions, such as those about support for the US alliance or attitudes to global warming, the Poll also points out the longer-term trends in Australians' thinking on some of the complex challenges we face as a nation and a globe.

What is harder each year is to draw out some overarching 'theme', to try to articulate and summarise what the Poll says about the  direction or mood of the nation, at least insofar as it relates to the rest of the world. It's possible, of course, that there is no such theme: that Australians' responses to 30-odd questions about Australia's international relations do not encapsulate the national mood. On the other hand, maybe those responses do in fact give some valuable clues about our worldview. Either way, one of the questions asked around here between March and June is: what does it all mean?

The answer, in 2015, is that the world seems to be a bleak place to many Australians. Fewer Australians feel safe now that any any time during our 11-year polling history. Only 24% of Australian adults say they feel 'very safe' this year, 18 points down from the 42% who felt very safe when we last asked them in 2010.

Apart from feeling more insecure, Australians' optimism about their economy is at its lowest point since our first poll in 2005. Only 63% of Australians are either 'optimistic' or 'very optimistic' about Australia's 'economic performance in the world over the next five years'. This is 23 points lower than the peaks of 86% recorded in 2009-10 at the height of the financial crisis, and the single largest fall in optimism the Poll has recorded.

One doesn't need to look too far in our other results this year for the probable cause of this bleak outlook. It appears the threat of terrorism is being keenly felt here, after the Martin Place siege late last year and the gruesome scenes and confronting news coming out of Iraq and Syria. Terrorism-related risks rank first, second and third out of eight potential risks to Australia's security in the next ten years, with 69% of Australians rating 'the emergence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria' as a high risk to our security (the highest-ranked risk), and majorities seeing 'terrorist attacks on Australians overseas' and 'home-grown terrorism in Australia' as high risk. By comparison, risks of conflict in our region rank far lower in Australians' threat perceptions, with 'maritime disputes between China and its neighbours in Asian territorial seas' seen as  high risk by only 26% of Australians.

As speculation grows about Australia making further commitments to the US-led military effort in Iraq, it appears Australians may well back such commitments. Most of them (69%) support Australia's participation in military action against Islamic State in Iraq (air strikes and training and support to Iraqi forces), even though a majority believe that such participation increases the risk of terrorism to Australia now, and only 20% say it makes us safer from terrorism in the future.

Despite the bleak picture painted by Australians in this year's Poll, there is one group among them who have a slightly brighter outlook, and that's the group sometimes known as 'millennials' or generation Y (18-29 year-olds in our polling).

With 70% of Australians aged 18-29 feeling optimistic about Australia's economic performance overall (compared with only 54% of those aged 30 and over), it's clear these younger Australians have a brighter economic outlook. More of them feel a bit safer as well (85%, vs 78% of those older). As a group, their views are quite different from those of their elders in many other ways. In the lead-up to the Paris climate conference later this year, they are more likely to say the Government should make significant commitments on emissions reductions in those negotiations, so that other countries will be encouraged to do the same (70% vs 61% 30+ years). They are less opposed to Chinese investment in residential real estate (55% saying there is too much investment from China, vs 74% of 30+ years). They are less likely to support the recent cuts to the aid budget (33% in support, compared with 58% of 30+ years). They are more likely to say the Australian Government should play an active role in pushing for the abolition of the death penalty internationally (62% vs 50% of 30+ years). Surprisingly, they are more likely to see the US playing a more important and powerful role as a world leader in the future (15% vs 8% of 30+ years).

Their views about world leaders are also revealing. Among our list of ten world leaders, US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is admired by fewer 18-29 year-olds (59% admire her) than their 30+ years  counterparts (81% of whom admire her). Millennials are much less likely to admire the Pope (56% vs 78% 30+ years). They appear to be less well-informed about international leaders than their elders: 63% of 18-29s 'don't know' Xi Jinping (compared with 50% of 30+ years); 53% don't know Joko Widodo (vs 39% 30+) and 19% don't know Vladimir Putin (vs 5% 30+) when asked whether they admire these leaders.

This is also the age group which has become somewhat notorious in the context of the Lowy Institute Poll for their attitudes to democracy, with less than half of them (49% this year) saying 'democracy is preferable to any other kind of government'.

There is a statement often attributed to Churchill (probably incorrectly) along the lines of 'if you are not a liberal at 20, you have no heart; if you are not a conservative at 30, you have no head'. It's possible these differing attitudes of younger Australians derive from youthful idealism or rebelliousness. It's possible their lack of knowledge, such as their relative ignorance of world leaders' names, derives simply from their youth rather than from any more sinister self-absorption or insularity.

Either way, the more positive and optimistic outlook of these young Australians brings a modicum of relief from the more gloomy worldview of the rest of the Australian population. 

Photo by Flickr user Crawford Learmonth.