Pride in the welfare state

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Major changes in the benefits system and how the NHS is run came into effect last week, and these have been the focus of a lot of news coverage and commentary.  In particular, a number of opinion pieces have focused on how negative we are about the current welfare system, how these views have apparently hardened over time and how those in lower social classes are just as likely to be critical of the current system of welfare benefits, despite being more likely to need them.  

A generational view of these attitudes provides an important perspective too, particularly for the long-term future of our welfare system.  Elsewhere on this website we have highlighted the significant generational differences in support for further redistribution through welfare benefits.  We are also exploring a wider range of attitudes to welfare in much more depth in a generational research study with Demos for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and the full findings of that will be launched this summer.  

One particularly interesting generational pattern from that work is seen in the differences in pride in the welfare state between cohorts.  As the chart above shows, there are very large and consistent differences in attitudes between generations.  

Seven in ten of the pre-war generation say they are proud of it, a figure that is virtually unchanged in the last 11 years.  Baby boomers are not far behind, particularly in more recent years.  But then there is large gap to generation X and an even larger gap to generation Y: just 25% of our youngest generation said they are proud of the welfare state in 2011.

We should not be hugely surprised that there is a generational hierarchy to pride in the welfare state, as younger generations were further from its set-up, and the progressive weakening of understanding of its role will be more important in influencing younger cohorts’ views.  

But the scale of the difference is more of a surprise, and does raise questions about the sustainability of support for the welfare system.  Of course, there will be some effect purely from the language used: the “welfare state” will be a vague idea for many, and will probably seem more arcane to younger people.  And if we accept that there has been a more negative narrative around discussions of welfare in recent years, this is more likely to influence younger people’s views, simply because they have a shorter historical perspective to draw on.  


This is clear when we look at other response categories to the question.  As the chart below shows, it is true that younger generations are more likely to disagree they are proud, but the level of disagreement is not that high and the differences between generations are not huge: around 20% of generation Y disagree compared with around 10% among the two older generations.  So rather than an active rejection of the welfare state by the younger generation, for most this seems to more reflect ambivalence and/or a lack of understanding of the question. 


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This is even clearer when we look at those who say they neither agree nor disagree.Half of generation Y are non-committal, compared with just 18% of the pre-war generation.


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Nevertheless, this generational pattern still raises important issues on how we can maintain support for the welfare state over the longer-term – and how it needs to change to increase its relevance to younger generations.
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Hannah Shrimpton - Ipsos MORI

Hannah Shrimpton

Associate Director
Social Research Institute
Ipsos MORI

020 3059 5000

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