Global Trends 2020

Me versus us: Is the world getting more or less liberal?

Is the liberal dream of societies open for trade with religious and sexual freedoms, the right to equality and personal autonomy now dead? India has seen a rise in popularity of extreme nationalist groups that have campaigned against the rights of women. In 2015, Turkey’s government won a majority despite criticism for its raids against ‘hostile’ media and mass arrests and in 2017 centralised more power in its authoritarian president via a narrow referendum victory. And the most recent blow – 46% of Americans voted for a protectionist leader who wants to block immigrants through “a beautiful wall” and enact a ‘Muslim ban’.

Is the world getting more or less liberal? If we define the term ‘liberal’ in the context of social values across the countries we have surveyed, the data paints a complex picture. Ipsos’ new Global Trends survey suggests a distinction between our attitudes towards ourselves and our perception of the world around us. We still tend to favour traditional social structures like marriage and community, but when it comes to individual freedoms such as gay rights and gender equality, we have become increasingly more liberal.

Most of us want to live our lives on our own terms. Globally, eight in ten (76%) of us say we want to be personally autonomous and depend less and less on any kind of external authority. This is particularly attractive to the emerging economies: for citizens of China (88%), Peru (87%) and Brazil (84%). But it’s also important to Europe and North America – Spain (83%), Italy (77%), Canada (70%), US (67%) and Great Britain (63%) all agree. And we believe that things are getting better. Over half (52%) of us across the world think that we have a greater opportunity to be free and true to ourselves than our parents did.

Across the world, our support for individual lifestyle choices of others is high and increasing, particularly in emerging economies. The majority of people across the world believe that gay men and lesbians should be free to live their own life as they wish – 74% up from 70% in 2014. Countries with a history of prolific gay rights movements still report high numbers – Spain leads with 90% of its citizens in agreement, followed by Germany (88%), Belgium, Britain and Canada (all 87%) and the US (82% up from 70% in 2014), but also in emerging economies such as Mexico (84%) and Argentina (83%). Out of the 22 countries in the survey, 17 have seen an increase since 2014 – with biggest movements in the emerging economies: Brazil (61% to 77%), India (60% to 74%) and Poland (58% to 68%).

Attitudes towards gender equality have also improved since 2014. On average, 57% of people across the world agree that things would be better if more women held positions of responsibility in government and companies – up from 53%. India, Turkey and South Africa have the highest agreement (79%, 72% and 70% respectively), indicating major social shifts in the emerging markets.

If our expectations of individual freedoms are becoming more liberal across both traditionally individualistic and collective cultures, how do we feel about our community and the world around us? Modern liberalism embodies new ideas, a tolerance for individual choice, and an acceptance of a diverse society.27 The data suggests that this vision hasn’t entirely extended to our own backyards. Seventy-two percent of us want to live in a community among people who share the same views and values as us. As expected, this is high among more collective cultures including China (83%), Peru (83%) and India (81%), but is also prevalent in established economies: US (79%), GB (76%) and Germany (71%).

This is perhaps not altogether surprising when considering people’s modern anxieties – 82% across the world believe that we live in a dangerous world, with little disparity between emerging and established economies, and over half (55%) of us globally believe there are too many immigrants in the country we live in – a view that doesn’t sit comfortably with a desire for an open and tolerant society.

Our belief in marriage as an institution remains steady – over half (57%) of us say it is better for parents of children to be married. As expected, this is higher in more religious societies, with Indonesia (85%), India (78%) and Turkey (77%) agreeing the most. Despite much lower levels of agreement, Italy (54%), Britain (51%) and Australia (49%), have generally remained steady – and have in fact risen slightly since 2014 in Germany (from 43% to 47%).

We are also harsh judges when it comes to crime and punishment in society. Across the world, 61% of us support the death penalty. In 17 countries, over half the population believe the death penalty is acceptable for serious crimes. Naturally, support is high in countries where it is legal – Indonesia (86%), India (81%) and the US (74%). However, it is also popular in France (62%) and Belgium (57%). Even Canada’s shiny image as the ‘last of the liberals’28 doesn’t preclude 55% of its population from saying they support capital punishment.

The world back in 2014, when we last published this report, may feel like a totally different place, but the data suggests that our attitudes are part of a long term trend, beyond immediate events. Our liberal attitudes may not extend to the comforting familiarity of the community and society we live in, but when it comes to personal freedoms, we have more in common with each other than we think.


It is important for both governments and businesses to determine how liberal our attitudes are, but for very different reasons. As well as serving in the best interests of its citizens, the policies of democratically elected governments must reflect the views and outlook of its citizens to some extent.

In order to successfully decipher between the two, policymakers must understand how people form their views. Ipsos’ Perils of Perception29  study reminds us that our perceptions are not always accurate or based on reality, and there are a number of reasons why people are often wrong about their community and world view.

For example, our analysis shows that Britons think there are twice as many immigrants in the UK than the reality. The biggest = overestimations in the world tend to be in countries with relatively low levels of immigration – such as Argentina, Brazil and South Africa.30

Understanding your population even when they are ‘wrong’ is vital for all successful politicians and brands.

Aalia Khan
Senior Communications Executive, Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute | @IpsosMORI

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