Views of benefits

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As outlined elsewhere on the Generations website, there is a clear generational hierarchy in both support for further redistribution through welfare and pride in the welfare state: in each case, successive generations are less in favour of more redistribution and less proud of the system.


But this is only a partial view of generational attitudes to welfare.  


There are some questions where all generations are now in agreement, such as in the chart above on views of unemployment benefit.  This shows a number of fascinating patterns.  First, the overall trend in belief that unemployment benefits are too low has significantly decreased.  Around half believed this up until the mid-1990s, but now just 19% do.  


But second, this is something that all generations now agree on – in contrast to the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Back then there was a very clear generational split, with generation X approaching 70% agreement and the pre-war generation averaging around 40%.  This difference has now disappeared.  This is fascinating and surprising, given young people are still more likely to be unemployment benefit claimants.  


The British Social Attitudes Survey includes other interesting questions that explore similar issues.  The chart below shows the extent to which people agree that if welfare benefits weren’t so generous, people would stand on their own two feet.  And again the overall trend has been towards a tougher view, with around a quarter agreeing in the early 1990s, rising to half by 2011.  


But there are more generational differences here, and interestingly it is the pre-war generation who tend to be more likely to agree with this throughout the period covered.  This is in contrast to their views shown elsewhere on this site, where they are more likely be proud of the welfare state and want more redistribution to the poor.  But it is not contradictory: it is consistent with a view of the welfare system as a hard-won privilege that should only be there for people in times of severe need. 


It is also interesting that in a number of years it has actually been generation Y that have been closest in views to the pre-war generation.  This has shifted in the last couple of years, but does fit with the greater focus on individual responsibility among this cohort seen in other generational patterns we’ve explored.  


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However, a harsher question – that many of those who get social security don’t really deserve any help – gets less overall agreement, and has shifted much less over time.  Three in ten (31%) agreed with this back in 1987 and this had only gone up to 35% by 2011, in contrast to the big shifts seen above.  This question also polarises generational differences, with the pre-war generation standing out as particularly harsh. Indeed, it is quite remarkable that half of all the pre-war generation believe that many who receive social security don’t deserve it. 


We are exploring these generational views of welfare in more detail in a qualitative study with Demos for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which will be released this summer.

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Hannah Shrimpton - Ipsos MORI

Hannah Shrimpton

Associate Director
Social Research Institute
Ipsos MORI

020 3059 5000

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