We are not the same

June: The different global reactions to the missing Titan submersible vs the Messenia migrant boat disaster raises questions about the changing shape of inequality

Ipsos | Almanac 2024 | June

Ipsos | Almanac 2024 | InequalitiesIn June, many were gripped by the story of five men who went missing in a submersible on a trip to visit the wreckage of the Titanic. A few days after contact with them was lost, ex-US President Obama gave an interview in which he contrasted the attention being given to that story with the much lesser regard shown to the far greater numbers of migrants who had died trying to cross the Mediterranean just a few days before the submersible went missing. This interview raised questions about the value placed on different human lives, and the reasons for our caring more or less about different groups of people.

At first sight, equality might seem a simple concept but it has proved very difficult to define, and many (sometimes violent) struggles have taken place over how far it is desirable.

There are many different ways to measure it. Some focus on income, and others look at the total wealth of individuals, organisations, and nation states. But not all inequalities are purely economic, even though they often manifest themselves that way. We also need to consider inequality of opportunity, health, housing, life expectancy, education and literacy, employment, as well as other ways in which particular types of people are discriminated against.

Between the end of the Cold War and the onset of the COVID pandemic, the general global trend was for inequality within countries to grow, but for inequality between countries to shrink. Rapid economic development (especially in China and India, but also elsewhere in Asia, Africa, Latin America and some post-Communist countries) meant that the gap between richer and poorer nations closed significantly. But the globalisation which was taking place alongside this meant that the balance of wealth and power seemed to flow from poorer people in richer countries toward richer people in poorer countries.

Adding to this upheaval are changing attitudes and moral standards, which are amplified around the world through social media and the Internet, leading to friction between conservative values and emerging norms around gender, sexuality, and ethnic heterogeneity.

The Ipsos Equalities Index

This was the backdrop to our inaugural Ipsos Equalities Index, published in July this year, which sought to cut through some of the intersecting complexities of the issue by asking:

  • Do people regard inequality as a serious issue in their country?

  • Is enough being done to address it?

  • Who should be responsible for addressing it?

  • Which groups are the most unfairly treated?

  • Do people believe they live in a meritocracy?

  • To ensure a fair society, is providing equality of opportunity enough?

We discovered a number of things, including:

  • Younger people are generally more sensitive to inequality than older people. They are also less likely to believe that their prospects will be determined by their own merits and efforts.

  • Compared to men, women are more sympathetic to the discrimination faced by those who are neurodivergent, LGBT+, suffering from poor mental health, or physically disabled. But we found very little difference in attitudes towards ethnic minorities, immigrants, people of different religions, or anyone suffering from age-based discrimination.

  • The shadow of history lingers over countries that once allowed racialised chattel slavery or segregation along racial lines. Decades or centuries after those injustices were ended, these countries typically saw a raised level of concern over the treatment of ethnic minorities.

  • Those who are richer and better-educated tend to be more concerned about inequality, even though they may seem to be less negatively affected by it.

  • Any backlash to recent efforts to promote greater equality is relatively small, and most likely to be found in countries where English is the first language.

We will be returning to these questions in 2024 so that we can start tracking changes over time and also further refine our enquiries. But even though this was the first time we examined these issues in such detail, we have been tracking the overall level of concern about poverty and social inequality for around a decade in our What Worries the World survey. This shows that it has been consistently one of the biggest concerns for people all around the world.

We’ve also taken deeper dives into particular elements of this question, through our 30-country LGBT+ Pride survey, and also our 32-country study for International Women’s Day. Both reveal that progress is uneven – for example:

  • While LGBT+ visibility is clearly on the rise, support for same-sex marriage and parenting has fallen in many Western countries like Canada, Germany (both -6pp), the US (-5pp), Sweden and Great Britain (both -4pp).

  • Nearly two-thirds (64%) agree that for women to achieve equality, then men need to take action to support women’s rights – but people are less optimistic about the prospects for today’s young men than they are for today’s young women (24% think they will have a worse life than men of their parents’ generation vs 19% think the same of women)

Ipsos | Almanac 2024 | Inequalities

Driving change for the future

But research can do more than just examine detail and observe trends – it can also help to drive change. June also saw the publication of our paper More Equal Than Others which brought some of our historical research together with work from academics and other experts to show how these disparities and injustices have a negative effect across the whole of society, not just those at the sharp end of unfair discrimination. It also offers a path forward for organisations who want to tackle these issues where they affect their employees, customers and other stakeholders.