Most Britons want equal opportunities but worry about inequality
3 JULY 2023
About the research
This analysis, written by the Fairness Foundation, accompanies findings jointly published by Ipsos and the Fairness Foundation on 3 July, analysing the GB responses to a global poll on fairness and equality carried out by Ipsos in February/March 2023. The analysis does not necessarily reflect the views of Ipsos.
How to read this report
The Ipsos poll asked six questions, so this report has six sections. Each of the six sections is divided into two parts. The first part looks at the responses to the Ipsos poll and how they vary by group and by country; the second part puts these responses into a broader context by discussing how they relate to findings from other research.
Given a choice between the two, more Britons think that fairness is about equal opportunity than about equal outcomes. However, this doesn’t mean that most people think that we live in a meritocracy. People are divided about whether hard work or factors outside people’s control are more important in influencing life chances and outcomes. However, a large majority (85% of Britons overall) think inequality is an important problem. This implies that even the ‘meritocrats’ recognise that too much inequality is a barrier to giving everyone equal opportunities to flourish.
It also suggests that people instinctively grasp that equal opportunities aren’t just about removing the most obvious barriers (such as discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexuality or disability), but also require action to tackle the equally significant barriers put up by socio-economic inequalities. As US President Lyndon Johnson said in 1965: “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”
Echoing previous research, the British public splits into three groups on the question of what factors most influence people’s life chances. 38% of Britons are ‘individualists’, who believe that merit and effort are the main drivers of success, while 35% are ‘structuralists’, who believe that systemic factors (such as being born into a wealthy or poor family) are more important. The other 28% are in the middle, or undecided.
Asked what fairness means, more Britons think about fairness in terms of giving everyone the same opportunities (46%) than see it as giving everyone the same quality of life (20%), with one in three (34%) unsure. While there is a sizeable minority who believe that everyone should have an equal quality of life (i.e. equal outcomes), a much larger group prefers everyone to have equal opportunities.
However, 85% of Britons are concerned about inequality, representing a broad consensus. This suggests that many ‘individualists’ think that inequality is preventing people from having equal opportunities to achieve success through merit and effort. 6% of Britons say inequality is ‘the single most important problem’, 36% ‘one of the most important problems’, and 43% think inequality is ‘important, but not the most urgent problem’; only 10% think it is not important, while 5% are unsure.
There is another three-way split when it comes to action on inequality for different groups in society (the groups weren’t specified, but it is likely that many respondents were thinking about racial, gender or LGBT+ inequality as much as or more than socio-economic inequality). 40% of Britons think that we need to go further on promoting equality for all groups, while 31% think we’ve done the right amount or are unsure, and 28% think we have gone too far (the highest proportion of any of the 33 countries surveyed, perhaps linked to the prevalence of ‘culture wars’ narratives in the media).
When thinking about which groups in society are treated most unfairly, Britons are most concerned about the unfair treatment of immigrants (30%) and people with physical disabilities (29%), followed by people from minority ethnic groups (28%) and people with mental health conditions (27%). At the bottom of the table are men (9%, compared to 22% for women) and young adults (8%, compared to 16% for senior citizens). In the middle, 24% are concerned about transgender and/or non-binary people, 22% about people who are neurodivergent, 20% about lesbians, gay men and/or bisexuals, and 12% about people of specific religions.
Asked which groups in society are most responsible for reducing inequality (with the option to select more than one group), 65% think that the government should be mainly responsible for taking action to reduce inequality in Britain, while 33% think that individuals have a primary responsibility. Other groups who are seen as having a responsibility in this area are the media (29%), employers (28%) and parents and teachers (25%). Very few people believe that groups experiencing inequality (11%), religious leaders (10%) or advocacy organisations (8%) bear responsibility for reducing inequality.
Views vary to some extent between groups within society, but these do not follow a neat or predictable pattern. For example, Conservative voters are almost twice as likely as Labour voters to be ‘individualists’, but there is not an exact correlation. There is rarely an obvious correlation between people’s views and their levels of education or household income. Generational differences are complicated; in the main, younger generations are more ‘structuralist’ than older ones, but this does not always hold – millennials are much more concerned about inequality than Gen Z.
Brits are more ‘individualist’ than many other countries on some issues (such as promoting equality for different groups in society), and yet there are fewer ‘individualists’ in Britain than in most of the other countries surveyed, suggesting that there is more of a ‘consensus of concern’ in Britain around socio-economic (and arguably regional) inequalities than around inequalities between groups (gender, race, sexuality and so on).
What factors most affect people’s chances of success?
Q1 | With which of these two statements do you agree more?
A | People's chances of success in Britain depend mostly on their own merit and efforts B | People's chances of success in Britain depend mostly on factors beyond their control
38% of the British public are ‘individualists’, who believe that merit and effort are the main drivers of success, while 35% are ‘structuralists’, who believe that factors beyond their control (which could include being born into a wealthy or poor family) are more important. The other 28% are in the middle, or undecided. ‘Individualist’ attitudes are slightly more common among men (41%) than women (35%), and significantly more so among older generations than younger generations (48% for Baby Boomers compared to 27% for Gen Z). They also increase with levels of income (28% for low-income households, but 40% for high-income households). They are also much higher among Conservative voters (61%) than Labour voters (32%), and vary by region, from 26% in Scotland to 45% in the North West.
Looking at the global picture, a smaller proportion of Britons have ‘individualist’ attitudes than in many other countries (38%, compared to an average of 43%). Some of the most ‘individualist’ countries are middle-income countries in Latin America and Asia (Peru – 66%, Indonesia – 60%, Mexico – 55%), alongside the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (all on 45%). Several European countries that are often assumed to be more ‘structuralist’ in outlook (with larger welfare states supported by higher taxes) also have high percentages of ‘individualists’, such as Sweden (54%), the Netherlands (47%), France (45%) and Germany (41%). Some countries with very high levels of economic inequality, such as India, have more ‘structuralists’ than Britain (50% in India, compared to 35% in Britain), although other unequal countries, such as the United States, have fewer ‘structuralists’ (27%).
People divide into individualists, structuralists, and undecideds
The Ipsos polling finds that the British public is fairly evenly split between ‘individualists’, who believe that merit and effort are the main drivers of success, and ‘structuralists’, who believe that systemic factors (such as being born into a wealthy or poor family) are more important.
This finding mirrors recent research by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, which found a three-way split between these two groups and those in the middle when asking about people’s attitudes to inequalities in Britain. Previous surveys have shown that one in three Britons are ‘individualists’ who believe that we live in a meritocratic society, where inequalities are fair because they reflect differences in merit and effort.
Political, economic and social factors influence attitudes
Does the fact that ‘individualist’ attitudes are much more common among older than younger generations reflect changing cultural values or differences in political views?
Or is it more reflective of economic differences, of the increasing wealth gap between generations, driven by a combination of asset price inflation and work and pension income for older generations?
Research by Ben Ansell and by Jane Green, both at the University of Oxford, casts some light on these issues.
Ansell suggests that there are significant generational divides on more philosophical issues (such as voting, social attitudes, and feelings of fair treatment), but that there is more intergenerational consensus on practical issues (what the government should be doing and spending money on).
Green argues that the real dividing line is economic (in)security: many young graduates have low incomes but high future earnings potential, while even non-graduate pensioners are generally economically secure because of high employment and the housing boom; the most economically insecure group are younger non-graduates.
Cognitive biases also affect people’s views
Research commissioned by the New Statesman in 2022 found evidence of a ‘regression towards the mean’, with most Britons on incomes well above the average and well below the average saying that they felt “normal”, “fortunate”, or “hard done by” when compared with the average UK citizen.
But for those who recognise that they are towards the top of the economic pyramid, another bias presents itself.
The US social psychologist Paul Piff has carried out experiments based on rigged games of Monopoly, in which some people have more resources at the start while others have less, to demonstrate that inequality influences how people think, such that people “who are winning at the game of life — who have more money, who have more privilege, who have more power” think that they deserve all of those things, and as such are less likely to think that inequality is a problem, and to be less willing to support efforts by the state or other actors in society to do anything about it. “We translate being better off than others to being better than others - the mind makes that translation.”
Is fairness more about equal opportunities or equal outcomes?
Q2 | And which of these two statements do you agree with more?
A | A fair society is one in which everyone is given the same opportunities B | A fair society is one in which everyone enjoys the same quality of life
More Britons think about fairness in terms of giving everyone the same opportunities (46%) than see it as giving everyone the same quality of life (20%), with one in three (34%) unsure. This pattern holds across most groups, with very small differences between men (47%) and women (45%), and between households of different income levels (46% for low and medium income, 49% for high income). A preference for equal opportunity increases with education (from 42% among those with low levels, to 50% for the highly educated). However, there is a lot of variation by age, with 53% of Baby Boomers choosing equal opportunities, compared to only 35% of Gen Z respondents. Business owners side more with quality of life (31%), and less with equality of opportunity (40%), than the general population. More Conservative voters (57%) than Labour voters (42%) prefer equal opportunities. Views vary by region, with the strongest preference for opportunity in the North and Yorkshire (51%) and the weakest in the Midlands (41%), where there is also the strongest preference for quality of life (26%).
Every country surveyed has a much larger group of people who see fairness as about equal opportunities than the group who see it as about equal quality of life. Britain is almost exactly in line with the global average (46% in favour of equal opportunities, and 18% in favour of equal quality of life). Generally speaking, the countries with large numbers of ‘individualists’ also have a strong preference for equal opportunity (such as Peru with 61%, Indonesia with 56%, Mexico with 55%, and the US with 51%). India, with more ‘structuralists’, is the only country where more people prefer equal quality of life (23%) to equal opportunity (21%). However, some of the European and English-speaking countries with more ‘individualists’ have slightly weaker than average preferences for equal opportunity, such as the Netherlands (39%), Canada (40%) and Australia (44%).
Most Britons are ‘fair opportunists’
People are less worried about the existence of a gap between rich and poor than by the existence of unfairness. People typically prefer fair inequality to unfair equality, and are more interested in eliminating poverty (and ensuring that everyone has the means to lead a good life) than in achieving equality. Yale University discovered that in a situation where everyone is equal, many people become angry or bitter if hard workers are under-rewarded or slackers are over-rewarded. Most people are less exercised by the existence of the wealthy than by the fact that the wealthy are able to play by different rules from everyone else; the Fabian Society found that robust views in demanding effort from those in need go hand-in-hand with anger at tax avoidance and strong cross-political support for a higher minimum wage and a better deal for carers.
Research by Newcastle University suggests that most people believe that inequalities linked to merit or effort are more acceptable than those caused by luck. Harry Frankfurt argues that people are troubled less by inequality itself than by unfair causes of inequality, by the undesirable consequences of inequality, and by the level of absolute poverty (although we also know that most people want a more equal society than the one that we currently live in). Our own research on attitudes to wealth found that three-quarters of Britons are concerned that the very wealthy don’t contribute their fair share of taxes, and have too much influence on politics, while two thirds are concerned about wealth inequality in principle (including a lack of equal opportunities to become wealthy).
People have different conceptions of equal opportunities
Equal opportunity is a concept that few disagree with in principle; but it means different things to different people. Some see it as simply removing discrimination against particular groups when competing for education or job opportunities on grounds unrelated to their ‘merit’ (such as their race, gender or disability. Others aim for a more exacting definition, which takes account of the varying circumstances into which people are born and the resources that they have at their disposal and aims to correct for the unequal life chances that result from them. It aims to tackle disadvantage and inequality in terms of inherited wealth, education and the family environment in which someone grows up, for example by taxing inherited wealth more so as to provide better equality education for all and to provide more intensive support to disadvantaged parents.
This is the ‘fair’ equality of opportunity that John Rawls laid out 50 years ago, which is a radical notion that would require huge changes to our society and economy if it were to be fully realised. Our polling from 2022 suggests that most Britons recognise the need for this more substantive form of equal opportunity; 83% of respondents agreed with the need to reduce inequality to support fairer opportunities, and even Conservative voters preferred reducing inequality to letting the market dictate outcomes, by a factor of more than two to one.
They also think about equal outcomes in different ways
Some of those who indicated in the Ipsos polling that they thought that everyone should enjoy the same quality of life might, perhaps, be reading ‘equal opportunities’ as the more superficial of the two interpretations outlined above. Others might believe that an unequal society can never be truly meritocratic, since unequal outcomes in one generation will inevitably lead to unequal opportunities in the next, even if they were the product of genuinely equal opportunities. They might agree with the Oxford historian Selina Todd that social mobility is meaningless if inequality has become too high, or with the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel that "meritocratic hubris" leads many to believe their success is their own doing and to look down on those who haven't made it, provoking resentment and inflaming the divide between "winners" and "losers" in the new economy.
The Ipsos question was carefully phrased so that people were not being asked to agree with absolutely equal outcomes (a state of affairs that very few people desire), but rather with equal quality of life. This could be interpreted as going beyond questions of economic distribution towards a broader concept of social justice and equality, such as Elizabeth Anderson’s notion of ‘relational egalitarianism’, in which equality is about the nature of social relations between people more than it is about how resources are distributed, Sandel’s ideas of a society in which economic inequality is separated from the moral recognition of deservingness, and Amartya Sen’s concept of 'equality of capability’, in which "the ability and means to choose our life course should be spread as equally as possible across society". It also speaks to the growing chorus of voices calling for us to attach greater value to wellbeing and happiness.
How big a problem is inequality compared to other issues?
Q3 | Compared to all the other problems facing Britain, would you say that inequality is:
A | The single, or one of the most important problems B | Not important
The most popular answer to this question among British respondents is the middle option; 43% think inequality is ‘important, but not the most urgent problem’. 6% say it is ‘the single most important problem’, and 36% ‘one of the most important problems’. 10% think it is not very (or not at all) important, and 5% are unsure. Overall, then, 85% of Britons are concerned about inequality. Looking at those who consider it the single or one of the most important problems (42% overall), there is very little variation by gender (42% of men, 43% of women). More richer households see it as a very important problem (47%) than poorer households 41%), and this view also correlates with levels of education (55% among those with high education, compared to 35% among those with low education). The generation who most commonly think of inequality as a very important problem is Millennials (56%), with Gen Z (41%) and Gen X (40%) in the middle and Baby Boomers (30%) bringing up the rear. Fewer Conservative voters (27%) agree than Labour voters (54%), and this view varies by region, with the lowest agreement in the Midlands (34%) and the highest in London (54%).
Britons are slightly less concerned about inequality than people in many other countries. Looking at the global average, 52% think that inequality is the single or one of the most important problems (with 9% saying it is the single most important problem and 43% saying it is one of most important problems), compared to 42% of Britons. Globally, another 34% say that inequality is important but not the most urgent problem, equating to a similar overall level of concern with inequality at the global level (86%) and in Britain (85%). Looking at those who consider it the single or one of the most important problems, Britons are more concerned about inequality than people in less unequal countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, but also people in more unequal countries like India. Many of the countries with higher levels of concern also have higher levels of inequality, but in addition they have higher numbers of ‘individualists’. Levels of concern in the US (43%) are almost identical to those in Britain (42%).
A super-majority of Britons see inequality as an important problem
85% of Britons (and 79% of Conservative voters) think that inequality is an important problem, although half of that group think it is not one of the top priorities facing the country. Nonetheless, this represents a very large consensus of concern, which encompasses not only the structuralists and the undecideds, but also half of the individualists – everyone other than libertarians and others with a strong belief in the small state above all else. Richer and more educated respondents are more concerned than others, which could be linked to cultural and political factors, or to more practical issues, such as poorer respondents being more focused on immediate issues like the cost of living.
The same combination of factors might explain some of the variations in levels of concern between generations. But despite the nuances, the overall picture is clear. It supports More in Common’s suggestion from their 2020 report, Britain’s Choice: “there is a consensus on the need to address inequality that transcends political divisions and reflects majority views... what is striking is how much common ground there is between those who emphasise systemic inequality and those who emphasise personal responsibility… most believe that the economy does not afford enough opportunity for those who work hard and want to get ahead… [and] integrate a belief in personal responsibility [with] the need to do more to reduce inequality."
(Mis)perceptions have a huge impact on attitudes to inequality
Views about inequality are driven more by perceptions than attitudes. People generally underestimate levels of economic inequality. For example, in polling carried out by the Fairness Foundation for the publication of the Fairness Index in 2022, people guessed that the poorest 20% of households in the UK have 6.4% of all wealth, whereas in reality they hold just 0.6%; and they guessed that the pay ratio between large company CEOs and their average employees is 15 to 1, whereas in reality it is 79 to 1.
In a seminal US study carried out in 2010, participants dramatically underestimated levels of wealth inequality, and then “constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution” – a preference that held for those on both sides of the political (and wealth) divide.
The link between levels of inequality and levels of concern about it is contested
In theory, we would expect to see a thermostatic effect, whereby higher inequality leads more people to recognise the role played by structural factors in determining life chances and outcomes, and to be concerned about this. However, there is some evidence that increasing inequality actually decreases levels of concern about inequality. Jonathan Mijs at LSE published research in 2019 suggesting that people in unequal societies are less concerned about inequality than people in more equal societies, because their growing social segregation from people with much less (or more) money has led them to believe that economic inequality is ‘meritocratically deserved’. As he explains in a letter to the Financial Times: “Caught in their own social circles, the world looks a lot less unequal and more meritocratic than it really is. So people in more unequal societies underestimate the extent of economic inequality and fail to see the structural advantages or barriers that help or hinder them.”
However, the strength of this effect may vary between countries. In the UK, levels of concern about inequality seem to be increasing, in particular among Conservative (and Leave) voters who were previously less concerned. This may in part be because the COVID pandemic and the impacts of the cost-of-living crisis have opened many people’s eyes to the extent and nature of poverty and inequality, both in the news and in their local areas. But this does not necessarily translate into increased levels of support for taxpayer-funded action by government to tackle inequality. And the European Social Survey found in 2020 that people in countries with higher inequality were more concerned with about fairness in relation to people on the lowest incomes than people in less unequal countries.
Have we done enough (or too much) to promote equality for all groups in society?
Q4 | Thinking about attempts to promote equality for all groups of people in Britain, do you think that, overall:
A | They have gone too far B | They need to go further
Britons are split into three groups; the largest (40%) think that we need to go further on promoting equality for all groups, while 31% think we’ve done the right amount or are unsure, and 28% think we have gone too far. The question deliberately avoids specifying what forms of equality, and what groups, people should be thinking about when answering. Although previous questions may have primed them to think about socio-economic inequality, many will be thinking about specific inequalities that are pertinent to them or that they are aware of, such as racial, gender or regional inequality, which makes it difficult to interpret the reasons for discrepancies between groups of respondents. Broadly speaking, higher proportions of women, younger generations and Labour voters think we need to go further on promoting inequality; higher proportions of men, older generations and Conservative voters think we have gone too far.
Britain has the highest proportion of people in all of the countries surveyed who think that attempts to promote equality have gone too far (28%, compared to a global average of 19%). It also has one of the lower (but not the lowest) proportion of people agreeing that we need to go further (40%, compared to 49% globally). British views are very similar to those of people in the US, and to several European countries such as Spain and Sweden. In contrast, countries such as Germany and the Netherlands have more people who want it to go further. Very high proportions of people in countries like Indonesia and Thailand want attempts to promote equality to go further, as well as European countries such as Portugal and Hungary. Again, it is hard to draw conclusions about the reasons for these differences when people are likely to be answering this question with a range of specific inequalities in mind.
Britons are much more concerned about some types of inequality than others
Different people will have had different types of inequality in mind when they answered this question. Some, primed by earlier questions in the survey, will have thought about socio-economic, class and regional inequalities. Others, however, will have thought about racial inequalities, gender inequalities, LGBT+ inequalities and so on. As a result it is hard to infer what lies behind these findings.
But we do know that there are considerable differences in levels of concern about various types of inequality in Britain. The Policy Institute at King’s College London found in their 2021 report Unequal Britain that Britons are much more concerned about regional inequalities than anything else, as well as being concerned about economic and racial inequalities; fewer people are concerned about other forms of inequality, such as between genders.
Which groups in society are treated most unfairly?
Q5 | Which of these groups of people, if any, do you think most experience unequal or unfair treatment in Britain today?
Men / Women / People from minority ethnic groups / Immigrants / People with physical disabilities / People with mental health conditions / People who are neurodivergent (e.g. with dyslexia, ADHD, autism, etc.) / Lesbians, gay men and/or bisexuals / Transgender and/or non-binary people / People of specific religions / Senior citizens / Young adults / None of the above / Not sure
Britons are most concerned about the unfair treatment of immigrants (30%) and people with physical disabilities (29%), followed by people from minority ethnic groups (28%) and people with mental health conditions (27%). At the bottom of the table are men (9%, compared to 22% for women) and young adults (8%, compared to 16% for senior citizens). In the middle, 24% are concerned about transgender and/or non-binary people, 22% about people who are neurodivergent, 20% about lesbians, gay men and/or bisexuals, and 12% about people of specific religions. Views do vary between groups; for example, Conservative voters are much less likely than average respondents to be concerned about the treatment of immigrants, people from minority ethnic groups and LBGT+ people, while Labour voters are much more concerned than the average respondent about all three groups. We can see the opposite trend (albeit to a smaller degree) in relation to concerns about the treatment of men and senior citizens. There is very little difference between different voting groups in levels of concern about people with physical disabilities or with mental health conditions.
At the global level, the groups eliciting most concern are people with physical disabilities (33%), women (26%), and people with mental health conditions (25%). Comparing responses in Britain to those in other countries, Britons are more concerned than most people elsewhere about the treatment of immigrants, people from minority ethnic groups and men. They are less concerned than most people elsewhere about the treatment of women, people with physical disabilities, lesbians, gay men and/or bisexuals, senior citizens and young adults. Levels of concern in Britain about the treatment of people of specific religions, transgender and/or non-binary people, people with mental health conditions and people who are neurodivergent are in line with global averages.
Concerns are spread across a wide number of groups in society
This question asked about ‘horizontal’ inequalities (between groups) rather than ‘vertical’ inequalities (between individuals or households, ie socio-economic inequalities). As such, it does not give us any data about relative levels of concern about class-based inequalities compared to other forms of inequality.
The relative prioritisation of concern about immigrants and ethnic minorities echoes recent findings from the World Values Survey that “Britons have become much more comfortable with having neighbours who belong to historically marginalised groups”.
Which groups in society are most responsible for reducing inequality?
Q6 | Which of these, if anyone, do you think should be primarily responsible for taking action to try to reduce inequality in Britain?
Employers / The government / Individuals / Groups experiencing inequality / The media / Religious leaders / Parents and teachers / Advocacy organizations / Someone else / None of the above / Not sure