Britons worry about inequality but put equal opportunities before equal outcomes

New global Ipsos research for the Fairness Foundation - the 2023 Ipsos Equalities Index.

The author(s)
  • Kelly Beaver MBE Chief Executive, UK and Ireland
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New global research by Ipsos, released in partnership with the Fairness Foundation, finds:

  • People in Britain are divided on whether people’s chances of success in life depend mostly on their own merit and efforts, or are mainly driven by factors outside their control
  • More people understand fairness in terms of everyone having the same opportunities than think fairness means everyone enjoying the same quality of life
  • Most people see inequality as an important problem facing Britain (although not the most urgent), but more people in Britain than in the other 32 countries surveyed said that attempts to promote equality for all groups of people in Britain had ‘gone too far’.

Fairness is more about equal opportunities than equal outcomes

When Britons were asked what fairness means, nearly half of respondents say a fair society is one where everyone is given the same opportunities (46%), whilst half as many people (20%) see it as ensuring everyone enjoys the same quality of life. The remaining third (34%) are unsure what the term means to them. In this, Britain is almost exactly in line with the global average of countries surveyed.

There are, however, big differences by age – 53% of baby boomers see a fair society as one in which everyone is given the same opportunities, compared with just 35% of Gen Z.

Most people get what they deserve, vs. life chances shaped by the system?

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 factors beyond our control are more important. The other 28% are in the middle, or undecided.

Compared with the global ‘country average’ across the 33 countries Ipsos surveyed, Brits are slightly less likely to say that success depends on people’s own merit and efforts (38% vs 43%), and a little more likely to say it depends on factors beyond their control (35% vs 29%).

Groups who are more likely to say that people’s chances of success in Britain depend mostly on their own merit and efforts (‘individualists’) include:

  • Older generations (48% of ‘baby boomers’ vs. 27% of ‘Gen Z’)
  • Those who are better off (40% of high-income households vs. 28% of low-income households).

Majority of people think that inequality is a problem in Britain

85% of Britons think inequality is an important problem facing Britain, although not necessarily the most urgent:

  • 6% of Britons say inequality is ‘the single most important problem’ facing Britain
  • 36% that it is ‘one of the most important problems
  • 43% that it is ‘important, but not the most urgent problem’
  • 10% think it is ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ important
  • 5% are unsure.

However, compared with other countries surveyed, Britons were slightly less likely to see inequality as the single or one of the most important problems facing their country (42%, compared with a ‘global average’ across countries surveyed of 52%).

Millennials (56%) are most likely to say inequality is among the top problems facing Britain, with Gen Z (41%) and Gen X (40%) in the middle and Baby Boomers (30%) bringing up the rear.

Do people think we need to do more on inequality or that efforts have gone too far?

Brits are also divided on whether we have got it right in terms of the level of action on inequality: 40% of Britons think that we need to go further on promoting equality for all groups, while 23% think we’ve done the right amount, and 28% think we have gone too far.

At 28%, the proportion of Britons who think attempts to promote inequality for all groups have gone too far is the highest across the 33 countries surveyed.

Which groups do people think most experience unequal treatment?

Topping the table of groups we think are most likely to experience unequal or unfair treatment in Britain today are immigrants (30%) and people with physical disabilities (29%), followed by people from minority ethnic groups (28%) and people with mental health conditions (27%).

In the middle, 24% say transgender and/or non-binary people are among those most subject to unfair or unequal treatment, followed by people who are neurodivergent (22%), women (22%), and lesbians, gay men and/or bisexuals (20%). 12% mention people of specific religions.

At the bottom of the table are men (9%, compared to 22% for women) and young adults (8%, compared to 16% for senior citizens).

Who do people think is responsible for tackling inequality?

Two thirds (65%) think the government should be mainly responsible for taking action to reduce inequality in Britain. However, a third (33%) think that individuals have a primary responsibility (in some cases, in addition to government, since respondents could choose multiple options).

Other groups who are seen as having responsibility for taking action on inequality 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%) should bear responsibility.

Kelly Beaver MBE, Chief Executive of Ipsos, UK and Ireland, commented:

This research shows that Britons are divided on what a ‘fair’ society’ really means to them. More than twice as many people say fairness is about equal opportunity, rather than the equality of outcomes, but people remain equally split on whether a persons life chances are down to their own choices or whether it is determined by our societal structure.  What is clear is that the majority of people (85%) think that we have an issue with inequality in Britain.

Will Snell, Chief Executive of the Fairness Foundation, commented:

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, but among both groups, a large majority (85% of Britons overall) are concerned about inequality. This implies that even the ‘meritocrats’ recognise that too much inequality is a barrier to giving everyone equal opportunities to flourish.

Technical Note

  • Ipsos Global Advisor interviewed 27,260 adults online in 33 countries, including 1,000 adults aged under 75 in Britain.
  • Data was collected between 17 February and 3 March 2023.
  • Data are weighted so that the composition of each country’s sample best reflects the demographic profile of the adult population according to the most recent census data.
  • Samples in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.S. can be considered representative of their general adult populations under the age of 75.
  • Samples in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Portugal, Romania, Singapore, South Africa, Thailand and Turkey are more urban, more educated, and/or more affluent than the general population. The survey results for these countries should be viewed as reflecting the views of the more ‘connected’ segment of their population. India’s sample represents a large subset of its urban population – social economic classes A, B and C in metros and tier 1-3 town classes across all four zones.
  • References to “the Global Country Average” reflect the average results for all the countries and markets in which the survey was conducted. It has not been adjusted to the population size of each country or market and is not intended to suggest a total result.
  • Where results do not sum to 100%, this may be due to computer rounding, multiple responses, or the exclusion of “don’t know” categories.
  • All polls are subject to a wide range of potential sources of error. A poll of 1,000 generally can generally be assumed to have a creditability interval of +/- 3.5 percentage points.
The author(s)
  • Kelly Beaver MBE Chief Executive, UK and Ireland

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