Young people’s perspectives on economic inequality

Young people use both ‘neo-liberal’ and egalitarian ideas when describing their attitudes to economic inequality, according to a new study.

The Reading University research drew on a series of group interviews with a total of 110 young people aged between 11 and 16 across eight schools in the south east of England.

Key findings

  • The young people tended to place themselves in the middle of the income distribution, but nonetheless often felt very strongly about experiences where economic inequality was visible in consumption patterns.
  • Economic inequality was interpreted using ideas of neo-liberal meritocracy, being viewed as the ‘fair’ result of people’s different skills or effort.
  • But they also used a more egalitarian interpretation to claim that rich and poor were the ‘same kind of people’, and that luck played a great part in different levels of wealth. This led the young people to argue that everyone should be treated the same and granted the same respect.
  • They suggested strategies to minimise situations where rich and poor people might be treated differently, or to manage the difficult feelings and lack of respect that participants associated with situations of economic inequality. These proposals did not challenge the existence of economic inequality, but focused on the justice of how people with different levels of wealth or possessions should be treated.

Source: Sarah Smart, ‘Feeling uncomfortable: young people’s emotional responses to neo-liberal explanations for economic inequality’, Sociological Research Online, Volume 17, Issue 3