08 December 2011

This week saw the publication of the latest annual British Attitudes Survey. It showed that while three-quarters of people think the gap between rich and poor is too large, only a third of people think the answer is for government to redistribute more. Though attracting much attention, the survey builds on a trend that has been emerging for a decade.

This apparent hardening of attitudes is not unique to the UK, and appears to be part of a cross-national trend about how people think about poverty, fairness and who is best placed to do something about it. For example, across countries, people have become much more likely to agree that if someone works harder and is more productive at a given job, then they should get paid more. People are much less sympathetic to the Prodigal Son – they don’t see why the hard working brother should pick up the tab.

The public have become more sceptical about the ability of the state to fix these issues – at least through welfare transfers and more attentive to the more subtle factors that help explain poverty and the cross-generational social mobility. Over half of Britons now think that unemployment benefits are too generous and discourage work, and nearly two-thirds think that parents who ‘don’t want to work’ is a key reason for why some children live in poverty. We have also become a little more wary of our fellow citizens, or at least strangers. The proportion of the people saying that ‘most other people can be trusted’ fell from nearly 2 in 3 in the 1950’s to less than 1 in 3 today.

But is this just selfishness and despair? The public have a strong appetite to do something about poverty and inequality. And as shown in last weeks early release of the Office of National Statistics measuring how people feel about their lives, a large majority of Britons still feel happy with their lives and feel that what they do is worthwhile – even despite the recession.

The public seem to be looking for solutions that might be called ‘something for something’. The public have also become much more open to the idea of alternative and non-state providers.

This is powerfully illustrated by the emergence of a host of new types of solution that enable citizens to connect with each other to solve problems – and seize opportunities – together. Indeed, immediately after the Today Programme report on the British Social Attitudes data there was an item about someone who had set up a website for people who wanted to tend the grave of a loved one but found it difficult to do so because they lived too far away. The website allows people to connect with others with a similar problem but in matched areas so that people could tend the graves of others in exchange.

The ‘grave-tending’ site is one of a myriad of such platforms that have been appearing in recent years. Whether we call it a technologically powered rebirth of mutualism or, as it is fashionably, the rise of ‘collaborative consumption’, the public seem to have an appetite for finding new solutions to old but urgent problems – and particularly solutions that add in a personal touch and connection. A recent call for ideas in response to a Cabinet Office and Nesta competition for ‘game-changing’ social innovations has led to nearly 500 applications, the vast majority of which are in this ‘new mutualism’ space – from complementary currencies to sites that connect people and organisations.

So are we getting more selfish? I don’t think so. Are we getting more savvy; more attuned to wider causes of social mobility; and more interested in finding new ways of helping people reach out and help each other – it looks that way.

David Halpern is currently head of the Behavioural Insight team in the Cabinet Office.