Piketty and the public: Voters see the end of generational mobility

Joel Rogers de WaalAcademic Director, YouGov
January 27, 2015, 8:44 PM GMT+0

A majority of voters think the old patterns of generational mobility are over - and that society is only getting less fair and more unequal.

It is a universal theme of history: economic turmoil empowers radical movements at the cost of public faith in the existing order, which is blamed for hard times.

Hence in recent years, Europe has become host to a range of populist fronts – anti-foreign, anti-Europe, anti-establishment, anti-politics, anti-rich –  that are causing a collapse in support for main parties and accelerating longer term trends in weakened party identification.

These fronts have also fanned the sails of a new debate on the old assumptions of economic policy that underpinned globalisation between 1970 and the subprime mortgage crisis.

In the process, several high canons of neo-liberal philosophy have been challenged by the tide of public opinion.

One is the assumption that markets drive progress rather than governments, after global finance was rescued by the state. The enhanced role of governments in recovery, plus the continued rise and survival of state capitalism, have helped to upgrade perceptions of a larger state role in economy and society.

Another is the trickle-down theory of wealth, as the divorce of economic growth from living standards has eroded belief in the notion that everyone gains from enriching the top.

A third is the pattern of inter-generational mobility – i.e. the capitalist pledge that living standards will generally rise from one generation to the next.

French economist Thomas Piketty rocked these debates last year with his thesis that the shrinking wealth gap of the 20th Century was an exception caused by unique circumstances, namely the effects of world wars and depression, which destroyed accumulated wealth and spurred the redistribution of income through government intervention, organised labour and technical progress. Capitalism since the 1970s has since been reverting to normal, he warns, which is fundamentally predisposed towards increasing inequality. This is because the rate of return on capital nearly always exceeds the growth rate of an economy, a process Piketty summaries with a simple formula: “r > g” (where capital = r and growth = g).

In other words, having money becomes the best way of accumulating more of it. Without intervention to counterbalance this concentration of wealth, goes the argument, a capitalist economy will naturally shift towards inequality, where a rising share of the benefits from growth accrue to the owners of capital while the wider workforce capture less of it.

Most people probably don't sit around studying Piketty. But according to new research for the YouGov-Cambridge Programme, they do support his general premise: that the halcyon days of inter-generational mobility are over, and society is only getting less fair and more unequal.

A majority of the public believe the next generation will generally enjoy a worse standard of living than their parents do now (53%), compared with only 12% saying standards will improve and 23% thinking they will remain about the same.

Do you think the next generation in Britain will generally enjoy a better or worse standard of living than their parents do now, or will things stay about the same? %

  Total Con Lab Lib Dem UKIP
The next generation will generally enjoy a BETTER standard of living than their parents do now 12 20 7 17 9
The next generation will generally enjoy a WORSE standard of living than their parents do now 53 42 62 57 64
Things will stay about the same 23 29 23 17 21
Don’t know/ None of these 12 9 8 8 7


62% believe society in Britain is becoming generally less fair, versus only 6% and 22% respectively who think things are getting more fair or staying about the same.

Do you think society in Britain is generally becoming more fair or less fair, or are things staying about the same? %



  Total Con Lab Lib Dem UKIP
Society is becoming MORE fair 6 13 3 7 4
Society is becoming LESS fair 62 42 78 67 75
Things are staying about the same 22 37 14 17 19
Don’t know/ None of these 11 9 5 10 3

75% think the gap between rich and poor living standards is generally getting bigger, versus a notable 3% who think it’s getting smaller and 15% saying things are staying about the same.

Do you think the gap in living standards between rich and poor people in Britain is generally getting bigger or smaller, or are things staying about the same? %


  Total Con Lab Lib Dem UKIP
The gap between rich and poor living standards is generally getting BIGGER 75 57 88 81 80
The gap between rich and poor living standards is generally getting SMALLER 3 5 2 1 4
Things are staying about the same 15 32 6 10 13
Don’t know/ None of these 8 6 4 7 3

Tory voters might show comparatively less pessimism than supporters of other parties in these figures but they still fall in line with the general direction of opinion.

As separate time-series research for the YouGov-Cambridge Programme also shows, these sentiments have remained static while other economic attitudes have changed.

For example, the proportion of those who are ‘worried’ versus ‘not worried’ about losing their job or having difficulty finding work has fallen from 63% - 33% in 2012 to 55% - 44% in January 2015 (see results). The proportion of those who think government spending cuts are good or bad for the economy has shifted from 32% good v. 53% bad in August 2012 to 45% good v. 35% bad in January this year (see results).

In contrast, the YouGov-Cambridge Programme has been asking voters every year since 2012 if they think the next generation will end up generally better or worse off than ours, with a broadly unchanging majority who expect the latter.

As Peter Kellner explains in a recent commentary (here), the Conservative lead over Labour has grown in this period while levels of support for the Tories have not, meaning that many voters have lost faith in Miliband and Labour but not transferred their support to Cameron and the Conservatives.

The figures above might help to explain why, at least in part.

Although UK rates of unemployment have been falling since 2011, much of the recovery has been shouldered by low income wages and stagnated earnings, while living costs have continued to rise. Thus why the trope of a 'cost of living crisis' has become so integral to this year's election debates.

There is little mistaking the Coalition has overseen a major turn-around in national finances to become the fastest growing economy in Europe.

But it has also failed, it seems, to convince a majority of voters that Britain is on the road towards the long-term recovery of living standards.

See results

Fieldwork was conducted online between 18-19 January, 2015, with a total sample of 1747 British adults. The data have been weighted and results are representative of all British adults aged 18 or over. 

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YouGov-Cambridge Centre

The YouGov-Cambridge Centre for Public Opinion Research is a joint research centre run by YouGov and the Cambridge University POLIS Department, which promotes in-depth collaboration between pollsters and academic experts. Alongside research and events, the Centre contributes to teaching at the University and provides several postgraduate scholarships each year.
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