Observatory on Social Mobility and Equal Opportunity

Exploring perceptions of equal opportunities

Democracies and open market economies hold the promise of fairness and equal opportunity. It is therefore critical to understand citizens’ perceptions on the role of democratic institutions and market players in providing everyone with equal chances to succeed in life to help ensure that the right policies are being designed and implemented.

New data collected across 27 OECD countries with the support of Amundi™ reveal widespread concern about the current level of economic inequality and a perceived lack of opportunity in society. Nearly 80% of respondents believe that economic inequality should be reduced or that more should be done to ensure equal opportunity.

Succeeding in life requires more than hard work

A majority of respondents (60%, on average) believe that hard work is essential or very important in determining one’s social position (panel A). However, of this majority, only one-fifth believe that hard work is the only factor for success.

Socio-economic factors, such as being born in the country you reside in or having well-educated parents, are perceived as key determinants of success by up to 43% of respondents. Similarly, individual characteristics, such as ethnicity, sex, or religion, are considered essential or very important factors for up to one in four of those surveyed (panel A).

The vast majority feel that other circumstances beyond a person’s control are equally or even more important to get ahead in life (panel B).

Circumstances beyond people’s control are  perceived to be more important in shaping negative outcomes than positive ones. 80% of respondents believe that low income is the result, at least in part, of bad luck, while 67% believe that higher earners got lucky.

Governments alone cannot tackle inequality

In almost all countries studied, the vast majority of people think that both governments and the private sector have key responsibilities in reducing inequality. Contrastingly, opinions on the role that wealthy individuals and trade unions should play differ largely across countries.

When it comes to reducing economic inequality, around seven out of ten respondents support the engagement of various stakeholders, with more than half of respondents believing that both public and private actors have a key role to play in reducing inequality. Even though people have different preferences on how to reduce inequality, the ideas are not mutually exclusive.

Wages and learning opportunities are key levers

While most people share the view that inequalities are concerning, opinions on solutions differ. The analysis shows that people are most supportive of actions that directly limit market disparities, such as introducing or strengthening the minimum wage (52%), and of policy options focusing on equal opportunities, such as improving equal access to education (46%). Less than 40% of respondents would be willing to support further redistributive measures. In addition, two-thirds of respondents believe that the private sector can play a significant role in reducing income inequality and in improving equal opportunities by paying fair wages to their lowest-paid workers. Moreover, over 40% believe that the private sector should address wage inequalities and create jobs and 30% believe that the private sector should invest in workforce training.

The age divide in perceiving inequalities

A clear age divide emerges in respondents when it comes to considering methods for reducing inequality. Compared to their older counterparts (aged 54 years and over), younger respondents (under the age of 25) are more likely to believe that identity traits such as sexual orientation or ethnicity matter in determining success. Although younger respondents report that no specific stakeholder should do "a great deal or a lot" to reduce income inequality, they generally do want a higher level of responsibility from ordinary individuals, local government and NGOs compared to older respondents. Contrastingly, older respondents believe there is a greater responsibility for the private sector and wealthy individuals. When it comes to expressing support for concrete policy action, younger respondents lean towards measures that target the lower and middle-income groups of the population, while older respondents express a stronger preference for increasing taxation for high-income groups.

Work produced by OECD with the support of