Global Trends 2020

No easy answers: Political uncertainty in a mixed-up world

One of the clearest trends across the survey is a sense of feeling adrift from the past, discontent about our present and unease about our future. But when it comes to how governments or brands should respond to this, it seems that uncertainty breeds uncertainty – there is no single silver bullet that citizens are offering governments that could make them happier with those in charge.

To start with, it’s clear that many around the world see their government as a remote institution that they have little time for. On average, half across the 22 countries in the study say they are dissatisfied with their government, and in only three do the fans outnumber the critics: India, Indonesia, and Canada. In two of those (India and Canada) we have seen big improvements since the last wave which was before the elections in those countries – so the chances are they represent the impact of changes in government there (and while Prime Minister Modi’s ratings remain strong, Justin Trudeau’s honeymoon is already showing signs of stalling).

For the countries at the bottom of the scale, six stand out – South Africa, South Korea and Mexico, and three European countries – France, Italy and Spain. This matches findings we have seen elsewhere, and are of little surprise given the high levels of public discontent in those countries, especially since the financial crash of 2008, as demonstrated in President Hollande’s low satisfaction ratings, Prime Minister Renzi losing the Italian referendum, and a variety of scandals in South Africa, Mexico and indeed France.

This unhappiness at the national level is despite most people feeling relatively happy with their local area (62% on average) – suggesting perhaps that national governments are seen as having little to do with many people’s local, day-to-day lives. This gap is most noticeable amongst older citizens – they are the most positive about their local area, but the most negative about their government.

Relative unhappiness with governments is similar to views of local public services (where on average only 30% are satisfied), suggesting governments may be being held more responsible for these, but again the pattern is not perfect. When comparing emerging with established markets, for example, there is no difference between their views towards their local area, but while emerging markets tend to be happier with their governments, established markets are more satisfied with the quality of their public services.

What’s driving this discontent with the way our countries are governed?  Populism was the buzzword of 2016 as people tried to explain the successes of Trump, Brexit, the rise of Le Pen, the Italian referendum, and so on. In fact, it became a bit of a cliché, and our data suggests that while discontent may be common, the factors behind it are many and varied, and several are long-standing and mainstream currents of perception, rather than the sudden change implied by the latest media catchphrase. But that doesn’t mean public opinion should be ignored, just that it can’t be easily packaged into a single soundbite. So what does our data show?

To start with the good news, most people still believe in democracy (72% on average), and in 18 out of the 22 countries at least two in three think it’s the ideal form of government (although, less than half in Russia!). But that may be as far as the good news goes, as it’s clear that many in many countries are feeling let down and left behind by the current system.

Let’s take some common attitudes that are associated with support for so-called ‘populist’ movements and see how they are doing (and remember, this is an online sample that does not include the oldest groups in each country):

  • Anti-immigration feeling? Yes! 55% on average think there are too many immigrants in their country, and 64% feel that public attitudes are hardening.
  • Feeling that your concerns are being ignored? Yes! 71% on average agree their government doesn’t prioritise them. Feeling instead that the economy is rigged in favour of the rich and powerful? Also yes! 76% agree.
  • Want a strong leader to replace the elected government, and even a revolution? Yes! 58% want a strong leader and 47% on average think a revolution is needed.
  • Feeling left behind by changes in society? Yes! 59% don’t identify with what their country has become, and 50% wish their country would go back to the way it used to be (and rising in countries like France, Belgium, Brazil, India, Germany and Sweden).
  • Fear about the world? Yes! 82% think the world is becoming a more dangerous place, and this is higher than 2014. 57% think they are less safe from crime than their parents.
  • Latent authoritarianism? Yes! On average, 61% support the death penalty – which has been shown to be related to support for Brexit. (Although, to be fair we should point towards majority support for women’s and gay rights too.)
  • Economic insecurity? Yes! Compared with their parents, 54% think they are less likely to have a secure job, and 53% that they are less likely to have a comfortable retirement.

So there is strong evidence of discontent around the world, but as the list above highlights, it’s not so easy to boil that down to a single cause. And, unfortunately, there is no simple answer for what governments should do about it either.

Comparing government satisfaction ratings with real-world indicators such as GDP, inflation, unemployment and so on, clear patterns are hard to find.50 First, look at the indicators that seem to make little difference to government ratings: absolute levels of GDP (in a version of the Easterlin paradox,51 while richer individuals are around twice as satisfied with their government as those on lower incomes, this doesn’t apply to richer countries), inflation, or inequality. Although at first glance there does seem to a relationship between satisfaction with government and the rate of GDP change (i.e. that faster growing countries are happier than those with more stagnant economies), this is mostly due to the outlier that is India – remove it, and the link is much weaker. Simply throwing money at the problem doesn’t seem to work either. If anything, there is a negative relationship between the level of government expenditure as a percentage of GDP and government satisfaction ratings.

There is one real world indicator that does stand out as having a relationship with government dissatisfaction – the unemployment rate – but otherwise, perhaps not surprisingly, there is a much closer link with other perception measures, most notably current ratings of the economic performance of the country, and optimism for the future.

In an attempt to deal with this weak link between GDP growth and how happy people are with their government, a debate has grown up over whether governments should take a more holistic focus on wellbeing, rather than narrowly concentrate on economic growth. But even here, citizens of the world are divided in their preferences.

When asked to choose between economic growth or improving people’s happiness and wellbeing, 30% prioritise economic growth, and 41% wellbeing. There is little difference by gender or age (apart from the very oldest who are slightly more likely to pick economic growth), education level or income, although there is more variation by geography. Those living in big cities are more likely to prioritise wellbeing than those in the suburbs, but there is an even stronger distinction between emerging and established markets.

In established markets, people are almost twice as likely to prioritise wellbeing over economic growth, while in emerging markets people are just as likely to say economic growth is as important as happiness. In other words, for poorer countries more money is chosen over ‘well-being’ – and will probably help with well-being in any case. This could be interpreted as reflecting a simple hierarchy of needs – which is supported by strong links between the level of inequality in a country, and how low it is on the Index of Human Development, and its relative prioritisation of economic growth. Again, though, that isn’t the whole story – for example, there is still little relationship between these two priorities and levels of GDP. Finally, whether or not people are satisfied with their government seems to bear little resemblance to their preference for wellbeing or growth, once again proving that while you may be able to please some of the people some of the time, pleasing all of the people all of the time remains as elusive as ever.


It’s true that many publics around the world are united by a deep dissatisfaction with the way things are going, which can be seen in some of the big political upsets of the last year. But it would be a mistake to lump them all under a one-size-fits-all banner of ‘the rise of populism’ – many of these trends have existed for some time, and there are a diverse set of drivers for different people and different countries.

It’s still important for governments to get the basics right, such as tackling unemployment, which remains a top priority around the world. However, perceptions are just as important as reality (at least reality as defined as standard GDP indicators), particularly optimism for the country’s direction of travel. While
it seems as if national governments get little credit whatsoever for how people feel about their local areas, administrations will need to work out exactly which are the key indicators in their own countries that will give citizens the sense that they are on the right track.

Even so, economic growth is not the be-all and end-all for citizens around the world. It is prioritised more in emerging markets, but in established economies people yearn for something more – which, given it will reflect a more diffuse set of cultural and identity values as well as economic concerns, will be even harder to define, and even harder to achieve. How brands and governments offer a sense of meaning becomes important.

While organisations need to exhibit extreme caution when attempting to use political and social movements (in particular those fuelled by anger, inequality or protest) to sell their product or reinforce their brand, the current instability and disconnect felt by many people around the globe cannot be ignored. In this age of uncertainty, brands may need to provide respite, reassurance and pleasant diversion to consumers.

Gideon Skinner
Head of Politics, Ipsos MORI

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