It’s not that difficult to use (or abuse) the idea of fairness to justify policies that will deliver the very opposite of fairness. At various points in recent decades, politicians have played on the British obsession with fair process to build support for austerity, to increase public antipathy towards people on benefits (’skivers’ scrounging off ’strivers’) and immigrants, and to convince an awful lot of people that we live in a meritocracy, where everyone - rich and poor - deserves their place in society. Social mobility has been a handy idea, too, persuading people to tolerate increasing levels of inequality with the comforting notion that the brightest and best will still be able to climb higher up the ladder than they started.
And inequality has risen all the while, in all of its forms - economic, racial, gender, regional, and many others. As Mike Savage argues in The Return of Inequality, it turns out that history is not confined to the past. The inequality of previous epochs was dormant, not dead, and in recent years it’s been back on manoeuvres. Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the myth of meritocracy is the social and relational inequality that it creates. Those at the top think their success is all down to them; those at the bottom blame themselves for their predicament. The resulting inequality of esteem and respect is a cancer in society that both exacerbates today’s problems and obscures the route to tomorrow’s solutions. And it has grown in part due to the expansion of university education, and the increasing divide between graduates and non-graduates.
Looking on the bright side, not everyone believes in meritocracy. As we pointed out in The Fair Necessities in 2021, only about one in three people consistently say that we live in a fair society. And that’s despite a consistent effort by large sections of the media to persuade us that this is the case.
Who are these one in three people, and are their numbers growing or shrinking as the years go by? And what accounts for these changes - are we looking at big generational divides, or are there other factors at play?
A number of articles published over the Christmas holidays have looked at issues around generational attitudes. But before we get into this, it’s useful to remind ourselves of the dangers of over-estimating differences between generations. In his book Generations, Bobby Duffy cautions against the usual stereotypes, arguing that we need to separate out ‘age’ effects (changes as people age) and ‘period’ effects (events that affect everyone at a particular point in time, such as the COVID pandemic) from ‘cohort’ effects (in which one generation does differ from another generation at the same age). He also argues that young and old can communicate with and care for each other, and aren’t always at loggerheads (a point reinforced by David Willetts in a paywalled review of the book).
In an article published on 30 December in the FT (paywalled link; twitter thread), John Burn-Murdoch argues that, unlike older generations, millennials are not becoming more conservative with age, and that this holds true even for those who are homeowners. He identifies this as a cohort effect linked to people coming of age during the 2008 financial crisis, as well as the ‘home-ownership’ crisis, and exacerbated by the use of culture war politics on a highly educated cohort.
On this reading, we could reasonably assume that the proportion of people who believe that we live in a fair society - or a meritocracy, depending on whether you think the two concepts are interchangeable - will steadily decline as the years pass (as will the numbers of people voting for right-wing parties, according to this analysis).
In an article posted on his Substack on 2 January (twitter thread), Ben Ansell builds on these arguments to suggest that there are fundamental disagreements between generations, but more on philosophical lines (fairness) than ‘operational’ ones (government spending). He identifies a particular fault line around belief in whether a person’s income and position in society is mostly the result of individual effort or elements outside of their control. Bobby Duffy and colleagues have written about this divide between individualists and structuralists (while pointing out that there are plenty of people in the middle). Ansell suggests that a key driver of this split in attitudes is the dramatically different situations that different generations find themselves in with regard to housing.
In a report published last May, Jane Green and colleagues at Nuffield Politics Research Centre argue that we need to think more about economic insecurity as a key dividing line. The key economic gap today is between younger graduates and younger non-graduates. The educational divide had less economic impact on the previous generation of non-graduates, who benefited from an unusual postwar period of high employment, a strong welfare state and rising asset prices. Younger non-graduates are having to contend with a much harsher economic context, as well as the social inequality described above.
On this basis, perhaps the cohort of older non-graduates - who arguably make up a large chunk of the one in three people who think we live in a fair society, alongside some older graduates - is a historical anomaly? In a Substack post from last week (paywalled link; twitter thread), Sam Freedman argues that the mentality of the electorate, and therefore the political landscape, has shifted dramatically from the 1990s when it comes to views on concepts like aspiration and fairness. In the 1990s, most voters had benefited in some way from certain Tory reforms (even if they increased inequality), which made it hard for Labour to win elections by focusing on defending the poorest in society, and led to New Labour’s pivot towards a focus on aspiration in order to win in 1997. Thirty years later, most voters have become poorer in real terms over the 15 years since the financial crisis. People still think about fairness in contributory terms, but whereas anger in the 1990s was often levelled at immigrants or people on benefits, these days it is the wealthy who are more often seen as the problem. There is a growing coalition between ‘white collar progressives’ and ‘the conventional working class’.
The British public aren’t entirely united. But they aren’t irrevocably divided either. Fairness and equality are not identical concepts. But, in times of very high inequality (such as today), there’s very little that can be done to make society fairer that doesn’t involve reducing inequality, even if, as Darren McGarvey argued in his Freedom from Want Reith lecture (review), we need to look at supporting people’s individual agency (reclaiming the idea of freedom) alongside tackling structural inequalities.
A conception of fairness based on contributory principles cannot operate effectively on a playing field that is pitched at too steep an angle. And an ever-increasing majority of Britons recognise this. We’re closer together than we think. We will be exploring this further in coming months, and asking another question alongside it - have politicians caught up with this new reality?
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