After a few decades of dominance, western liberal capitalism is now competing with authoritarian capitalism in China and Russia. The post-Cold War logic that ‘west is best’ has cracked. Inside western societies there is also rising political conflict over the role markets and the state should play in people’s lives. While six in ten (62%) globally agree with the meritocratic ideal that if you work hard you will get ahead, it is under threat in key European countries. Only half of those in Germany (53%) and Spain (50%)feel their economies produce rewards that reflect their efforts, as do just four in ten people in Italy (41%).
One core response to this perceived inequality of outcome and opportunity is support for wealth redistribution – one of our top ten values of 2020. It encompasses the widely held view that national economies are rigged to advantage the rich and powerful (74% agree globally) and that large income differences are bad for society (76%). Despite its strength, it is important to note that redistributionist sentiment appears to have stalled; the proportion who feel their economies are rigged fell slightly, from 76% in 2016 to 73% in 2019, with notable drops in the US (from 78% to 70%) and Spain (85% to 74%). Global sentiment on large income differences remains at similar levels to previous years. The US continues to be an exception, with the lowest agreement globally that income inequality is a problem (55%).
Despite support for wealth redistribution, capitalism still has its supporters – it has after all lifted millions out of poverty. For example, while more than half say they do not trust business leaders to tell the truth (58%) or have a lower level of trust in businesses (51%), a substantial minority do trust the leaders of industry (38%). Trust in business leaders is strongest in emerging markets such as India, Saudi Arabia and China (64%, 63% and 43%) but some established markets record similar levels of faith (Denmark and the Netherlands on 42%). Globally, Millennials are more likely than Baby Boomers to trust business leaders to tell the truth (36% versus 28%). Although, as our previous research on ‘Generations’ highlights, this may be a ‘life stage’ effect of being young, and their higher level of trust may be eroded over time.
The materialistic divide between emerging and established markets looks set to grow
The final element of our economic choices speaks to human attitudes towards success; how we achieve it and how we display it. Across the twenty core Global Trends countries tracked since 2013,53 we’ve seen the proportion who agree that fulfilment in life is achieving a prominent position in your career rise from 39% to 44%, including a 14 percentage point surge in Italy (36% to 50%), increases of twelve points in Australia (26% to 38%) and nine in the US (30% to 39%). However, the work-orientation of those most established economies remains dwarfed by views in the emerging markets: 76% of Indian, 68% of Saudi and 56% of Chinese citizens agree that getting ahead matters in life.
The world remains divided by its attitudes to conspicuous consumption – those in emerging markets are more likely to want to flaunt their wealth. China tops this list: more than three-quarters (78%) say that they measure success by the things they own, a significant increase from 2016 (70%). This contrasts strongly with the austere Swedes, where materialism is seen as a sign of success by just 18% – itself a doubling of the sentiment in 2013 (9%).
There is also an urban angle to materialism and achievement with city dwellers more prone to ostentation: 42% of those living in big cities share this materialistic impulse, compared with 34% in rural areas. The economic allure of megacities is strongly felt in emerging markets, where most would choose to live in a big city if they had the choice (72% of online Indians and Chinese, compared with 27% of Britons and 25% of French) – and, with increasing numbers of their citizens moving to the cities, the materialistic divide between emerging and established markets looks set to grow.
The desire for wealth redistribution sits close to mistrust of big tech and big data on our Global Values Map, while faith in capitalism close to a willingness to share personal information (see page 28). The world is dividing over whether to be optimistic or pessimistic over established institutions, and anxiety about the status quo has become increasingly visible over the past year. The protests of 2019 in Hong Kong, France, Chile and elsewhere are current signals of capitalism’s turning point.
This tension speaks to a deeper fragmentation in society between trust and distrust. We predict that the 2020s will see continuing tensions between rural and urban areas, and over the role of the state and markets.