March 2020


  1. Piketty's Latest Charge
  2. Asia school closures for coronavirus expose digital divide
  3. The future of work: opportunities for a gender new deal
  4. Opinion: The Nature of Social Inequalities in Great Britain
  5. Not all young people are ‘digital natives’ – inequality hugely limits experiences of technology

Piketty's Latest Charge


By                            :               Willem H. Buiter

Date                         :               March 13, 2020

Source                     :               Project Syndicate


By offering a comprehensive history of "inequality regimes" around the world, French economist Thomas Piketty offers a deeply informative and rewarding overview of one of today's most pressing economic issues. But his own historical narrative suggests that his vision of global participatory socialism is a non-starter.


Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology, Harvard University Press, 2020.


NEW YORK – French economist Thomas Piketty’s latest doorstop tome tries to fuse two distinct research efforts. The first is a history of inequality since around 1700, with occasional excursions into earlier periods. Upon reaching the nineteenth century and the industrial era, the analysis deepens and grows more detailed, taking us up to the present. Unlike Piketty’s previous opus, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which focused on the United States and just a few European countries, Capital and Ideology expands the scope to cover India, China, Brazil, and much of the postcolonial world.

The book’s second major objective is to provide a blueprint for “participatory socialism” at the global level. Piketty envisions a world in which the only inequality is “just inequality.” The latter includes income and wealth differences that “are the result of different aspirations and distinct life choices or permit improvement of the standard of living and expansion of the opportunities available to the disadvantaged.” In other words, permissible inequality should be determined on a Rawlsian basis, which allows for differences of position so long as they benefit the least well off in society.

These two overarching themes and associated research programs are not organically connected. Nothing resembling Piketty’s vision for global participatory socialism has developed during the 250-year history of “inequality regimes” that constitutes the bulk of the book. Not even the heyday of Western social democracy (1930-80) came close to what Piketty has in mind. In today’s political climate, moving our hyper-capitalist, nationalist, and identitarian societies toward Piketty’s ideal would require nothing short of a global revolution.


Although Piketty’s opponents often glibly dismiss him as a closet Marxist, he is no economic or technological determinist. “Given an economy and a set of productive forces in a certain state of development,” he writes, “a range of possible ideological, political, and inequality regimes always exists.” He thus concludes that, “inequality is neither economic nor technological; it is ideological and political.” Political entrepreneurship, historical contingencies, and ideological climates all play a role in shaping economic institutions and structures.

According to Piketty, the political processes that reduced inequality in the past also helped to create what he considers “our most precious institutions – those that have made human progress a reality, including universal suffrage, free and compulsory public schools, universal health insurance, and progressive taxation.”

Piketty distinguishes between six categories of social organization: trifunctional (as in the pre-modern structure of clergy, warriors, and commoners), slaveist, colonialist, proprietarian, social-democratic, and communist. These categories are interpreted flexibly. For example, between 1527 and 1865, Sweden actually had four classes (nobility, clergy, urban bourgeoisie, and landowning peasantry) and colonial India had – or was seen by British colonialists to have – four main castes: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. Similarly, “social democracy” comprises not just European welfare states but also the US in the years between the New Deal and President Ronald Reagan’s election.

The book provides a detailed account of how premodern trifunctional societies with weak, decentralized states evolved into today’s extremely inegalitarian ownership (proprietarian) societies with stronger, centralized states. The description of the period from around 1800 until World War I benefits greatly from its inclusion of slave and colonial societies, particularly its discussion of the compensation that former European slave owners received when that deplorable institution was abolished. Here, Piketty is absolutely correct that “it is impossible to understand the structure of inequality today without taking into account the heavy inegalitarian legacy of slavery and colonialism.”

In the ideal or typical proprietarian society, private individuals (or dynasties) can exercise and exploit perpetual wealth ownership. A centralized state, which funds itself through taxes approved by the citizenry (whose status is based on wealth) monopolizes the once-royal powers of security, justice, and the legitimate use of force, and guarantees full, complete, inviolable, and permanent property rights.

In Piketty’s account, ownership societies suffered a threefold crisis in the 1914-45 period. Increasing inequality during the proprietarian era (1800-1914) gave rise to internal challenges. The first were the social-democratic and communist counter-discourses, which had already started in the early nineteenth century. Then came the emergence of social-democratic and communist counter-regimes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Piketty believes that “the powerful social and political tensions stemming from rising inequality contributed to the rise of nationalism and therefore the likelihood of war.” But he offers little evidence for this conjecture. In fact, many countries – including the US and the United Kingdom – actually introduced steep progressive income and inheritance taxes during this period.

In any case, the two decades of decolonization after World War II had long been preceded by critiques of and attacks on the colonial order, not to mention the growth of national independence movements in the colonies themselves. Like the two world wars and the rejection of free trade and the free movement of capital, nationalist and identitarian (race- and ethnicity-based) politics directly challenged the model of the classic ownership societies.


During the 1950-80 period, most proprietarian societies continued to follow the more egalitarian development paths initiated during the previous era. Inequality declined almost everywhere, and European income and wealth inequality, which had been significantly greater than that of the US until 1914, fell below US levels. This trend owed much to progressive income taxes and significant growth in public spending (and tax revenues) as a share of GDP, which was enabled by buoyant economic growth – including robust real (inflation-adjusted) wage gains.

Public spending on health, education, pensions, and welfare rose dramatically during this period. Between 1932 and 1980, the top marginal income tax rate averaged 81% in the US, 89% in the UK, 58% in Germany, and 60% in France. Here, Piketty asserts a causal connection between the period’s extraordinary economic performance and the attendant reductions in inequality: “the economic and social success of the capitalist countries in the twentieth century depended on ambitious and largely successful programs to reduce inequality, and in particular on steeply progressive taxes.”

But, again, there is little evidence to back the assertion. The only thing we can say with any degree of confidence is that material reductions in inequality and steep progressive income taxes were compatible with these countries’ economic and social success. Whether they were necessary to that success remains an open question. After all, one can point to many other drivers of growth in the advanced economies during the 1950-80 period. The world was recovering from the destruction and dislocation of two world wars, and from the unprecedented output and employment losses of the Great Depression. Following more than 30 years of economic near-autarky, multilateral trading relationships were restored and trade barriers fell. There was also a massive demographic boost with the baby boom, as well as far-reaching productivity gains stemming from a broader reallocation of resources from agriculture to the industrial and service sectors.

Moreover, in light of Piketty’s second main theme, it is worth noting that, even at the height of social democracy’s golden era, there were only isolated and half-hearted attempts to make fundamental changes to the determinants of power and opportunity across capitalist societies. Only a few countries (notably Germany and Sweden) attempted to create new forms of power sharing and social ownership, such as through codetermination, whereby workers hold seats on corporate boards and participate in strategic decision-making. Meanwhile, progressive wealth taxes (including progressive inheritance taxes) remained largely absent.

For his part, Piketty focuses on the failure of social-democratic societies to provide equal access to education and knowledge, especially higher education. In his telling, the US is the most egregious offender, owing to its private universities and the role played by parental wealth in determining admission and one’s career prospects thereafter. Needless to say, this wealth-driven erosion of equality of opportunity has continued since 1980, as have gender-based inequalities, which were an enduring feature of the 1950-80 era. As Piketty puts it, the golden age of social democracy was also “a sort of golden age of patriarchy in Western culture.”


Since 1980, economic inequality has increased in virtually every country, especially if one considers the growing shares of income and wealth held by just the top 1%, 0.1%, or even 0.01% of the population. Some of the most spectacular increases in inequality have occurred in post-communist societies like Russia and China; inequality has risen much more in the US than in most European countries. Equally important for Piketty’s argument that these countries’ socioeconomic success required material reductions in inequality and steep progressive income taxes is the observation that per capita income growth in advanced economies has declined relative to the 1950-80 period, and will likely continue to do so in the decades to come.

Still, one must remember that even as wealth and income inequalities within countries were increasing, more people were lifted out of absolute poverty during this period than ever before. In absolute terms, this achievement is largely due to China’s explosive economic growth since the start of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in 1978, and to the less impressive but still remarkable growth in India and other emerging markets since the 1990s. As shown in the oft-cited “elephant curve” of global inequality, growth in emerging economies has reduced inequality between the bottom and the middle of the global income distribution, but other factors have expanded the gap between the middle and the top.

Intra-country inequality has risen for many reasons, including the unbridled globalization of trade and capital movements (not least foreign direct investment), and offshoring and outsourcing of previously well-paying manual jobs. Meanwhile, the integration of China and India into the global economy increased the effective labor-to-capital ratio for the advanced economies. If, as the preponderance of the empirical evidence suggests, the elasticity of substitution between labor and capital were less than one, an increase in the effective labor-to-capital ratio would reduce labor’s share in national income. (In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty actually assumes that this elasticity is greater than one.)

The rise of new high-tech industries also may have favored capital income and pure economic rents (the returns to genius, luck, and monopoly power) over labor income. In some countries, policymakers allowed the real value of the minimum wage to erode, and increased industrial concentration likely undercut competitive pressures and boosted monopoly rents in many sectors.

Moreover, the tax system in most countries has become far less progressive over time. The top marginal federal income tax rate in the US is now 37%; the highest marginal rate in China, the UK, Germany, and France is now 45%. Russia has an effectively flat personal income tax rate of 13%. In any case, the increased burden of public debt also may have contributed to increased inequality if, as seems plausible, the owners of that debt are richer (on average) than the taxpayers who pay to service it.

Finally, after 1980, the mainstream political parties in the US and many western European countries were transformed from “classist” organizations into representatives of what Piketty calls the “Brahmin left” and the “merchant right.” Under the new dispensation, the less educated and lower paid have no political home, and have increasingly been attracted to populist political entrepreneurs and nativist movements.


The vision of participatory socialism laid out in Capital and Ideology rests on three pillars. First, Piketty calls for social ownership and shared voting rights in firms. Second, he advocates more temporary forms of ownership and measures to circulate wealth, such as through progressive taxation of income and wealth, an annual basic income, and a capital endowment to be paid at age 25. Finally, he explains how he would institute international social federalism, offering both an ambitious version and a more modest de minimis outline.

On the issue of power sharing in firms, Piketty proposes a 50-50 split between workers and shareholders, like in Germany today. But, interestingly, he makes no allowance for representatives of the local communities within which firms operate, nor for custodians of wider national or environmental interests.

On fiscal redistribution, Piketty focuses on three progressive taxes that would yield revenues equal to 50% of national income. He argues that his proposed wealth tax would yield 4% of annual national income, and that a progressive inheritance tax would yield another one percentage point. These revenues would be used to pay for the capital endowment, which would be worth roughly 60% of the average wealth across the society.

Finally, his progressive income tax (on corporate profits, social-welfare contributions, payrolls, self-employment, and possibly carbon dioxide emissions) would yield the equivalent of 45% of national income in annual revenue. Revenues equal to around 5% of national income would then be used to fund an annual basic income equal to 60% of average income after taxes, to be paid out to individuals with no other resources (like a negative income tax). The remaining revenues would fund health care, education, pensions, unemployment insurance (which could become redundant because of the basic income), family benefits, cultural and social services, and so forth.

Of course, total public revenues could be increased above 50% of national income if there were indirect taxes (including value-added taxes, sales taxes, tariffs, and import duties), or if government-owned productive enterprises were to make profits. But Piketty doesn’t cover government enterprises, and he seems to have no use for indirect taxes except when correcting for an externality. The carbon tax, which is somehow wrangled into his progressive income-tax scheme, is the only indirect tax to make an appearance.

How does all of this compare to the status quo? While a few OECD countries do have general government spending above 50% of GDP, most do not. In 2017, government spending as a share of national income was 56.4 % in France, 53.7% in Finland, and 51.2% in Denmark, compared to 49.3% in Sweden, 48.4% in Italy, 47.3% in Greece, 44.4% in Germany, 41.2% in Spain, 41.1% in Poland, 40.4% in the UK, 38.9% in Japan, and 37.8% in the US (in 2018).


A striking feature of Piketty’s overall proposal is that it lacks almost any kind of basic economic analysis. As such, he mostly ignores incentives, and proceeds as though the size of the economic pie is independent of how it is baked, sliced, and shared. But for Piketty’s redistribution schemes to have any chance of working, cross-border tax evasion and avoidance would have to be reduced substantially, as would tax competition between nation-states and the cross-border movement of mobile factors of production.

In other words, international cooperation between national fiscal and regulatory authorities is a must. Without routine cross-border exchange of information, it would be impossible to maintain comprehensive up-to-date asset registers with which to pursue redistributive wealth taxation. And without common tax schedules for internationally mobile factors of production and financial instruments, there could be no minimal social federalism on a global scale.

To be effective in containing CO2 emissions, the carbon tax also would have to be implemented on a global scale. But while a variable-rate or progressive carbon tax would allow too many small emitters to continue fueling the climate crisis, an (environmentally efficient) flat-rate tax would be highly regressive, given that close to 600 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa currently lack access to electricity. Providing them with energy, even if the most carbon-efficient methods were employed, inevitably would boost the region’s CO2 emissions. To prevent such a policy from being punitive for Africa and other regions would require offsetting transfer payments from rich countries. But managing meaningful cross-border transfers would necessitate an even more ambitious version of Piketty’s global social federalism.

What are the prospects for this level of international cooperation? There has been some progress in information sharing between tax authorities (in the US, for instance) and foreign financial institutions (such as in Switzerland); and some of the more egregious tax havens have indeed come under pressure. But the number of countries with very low tax rates and limited transparency does not appear to be shrinking significantly. External fiscal constraints on national redistribution policies are therefore often binding, and they are likely to remain so.

Besides, there will also continue to be strong domestic political constraints on aggressive redistribution policies. In the UK’s latest general election, the Labour Party ran on a radically progressive agenda and suffered its worst loss since 1935. Though Brexit obviously played an important role in that outcome, there are very few countries where a majority of voters trust the public sector to spend 50% of GDP responsibly. Yet Piketty pays little attention to the issue of how public expenditures and revenues are managed, even though the informational and incentive problems involved are massive.


Beyond the three pillars of participatory socialism, Piketty also advocates three ad hoc measures to limit and reduce inequality. The first concerns educational justice, which holds that public funding for all education (primary, secondary, and tertiary) is insufficient as long as existing inequalities can impair access for those at the middle and bottom of the income and wealth scale. In the case of the US, Piketty proposes a progressive tax on university endowments to finance an endowment fund for poorer universities. Obviously, this idea is unlikely to play well at Harvard and Yale.

A second measure aims to limit the influence of big money in politics. Here, Piketty proposes that parties and campaigns be financed with “democratic equality vouchers” of, say, $5, provided to every voting citizen annually. Meanwhile, political contributions by firms and other non-personal legal entities would be prohibited, and individual donations would be strictly limited. This all sounds like a splendid idea. Unfortunately, it has a snowball’s chance in hell of being adopted in many countries, particularly in the US following the Supreme Court’s notorious Citizens United decision in 2010.

The third proposal is to use quotas, reservations, and other categorical-priority policies (like affirmative action) to address persistent forms of inequality and discrimination, such as those associated with race, ethnicity, gender, and caste.

The journey through this book is long but rewarding. Piketty’s historical analysis of inequality around the world is fascinating, and even the wishful thinking underlying his “participatory socialism” makes for interesting reading, so long as it is recognized for what it is. Everything is possible, but not everything is likely. If two world wars and the Great Depression could not trigger a transition to anything close to a participatory socialist regime that includes a form of social federalism at the global level, the odds of achieving it in the coming decades must be negligible.

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Asia school closures for coronavirus expose digital divide


By                            :               Rina Chandran

Date                         :               March 13, 2020

Source                     :               Thomson Reuters Foundation


BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Millions of children in Asia risk falling behind because of school closures amid the coronavirus outbreak, with unequal access to the internet hurting poorer kids as classes go online, technology and human rights experts warned on Friday.

Worldwide, an unprecedented 363 million children and youth are affected by closures of schools and universities, according to data released by this week by the United Nations’ education agency UNESCO.

That number is expected to rise as more countries implement lockdowns.

“The global scale and speed of the current educational disruption is unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement.

As countries deal with the situation, it is important to “ensure this crisis promotes innovation and inclusion and does not exacerbate learning inequalities,” she said.

Schools are deploying distance-learning programs and education applications and platforms, including radio and the internet to reach students remotely.

But the so-called “digital divide” - which refers to the gap between those who have access to computers and the internet, and those with limited or no access - is a challenge.

About 54% of the global population - or 4.1 billion people use the internet. But only two out of 10 in the least developed countries are online, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the U.N.’s internet and telecoms agency.

“Digital exclusion in general reflects and entrenches broader patterns of disadvantage across age, gender, social and economic dimensions,” said Julian Thomas, a communications professor at Australia’s RMIT University.

“The cost of internet access can be prohibitive for low-income families, and the infrastructure and services necessary for everyone to be able to use the internet at home is unevenly distributed across urban, rural and remote areas,” he said.

Low-income families are particularly dependent on mobile devices for internet access, which may not be suited for learning purposes, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Those families also tend to rely on schools, libraries, workplaces and community centers for internet access, and are “substantially disadvantaged” when these are closed, he said.

In India, where primary schools in Delhi, and schools and colleges in Kerala state are closed until April to fight the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, education charities say they are worried about girls dropping out.

Nearly a fourth of the country’s girls leave school before puberty, with the result that the female literacy rate is 66% compared to 80% for men, according to census data.

In Delhi, the closure coincides with the holiday period. If it extends beyond March 31, then parents may be involved in lessons, and some classes may be moved online, said Shailendra Sharma, principal advisor at the directorate of education.

“We recognize that in government schools, many students are first-generation learners, so parents may not be able to help much. Nor does every student have access to a smartphone or tablet,” he said.

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The future of work: opportunities for a gender new deal


By                            :               Sarah Ashwin

Date                         :               March 10, 2020

Source                     :               LSE Business Review


Basic income debates seem directed towards a genderless, universal citizen, ignoring the potential to challenge the resiliently gendered division of paid and unpaid labour, writes Sarah Ashwin

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) have sparked renewed fears regarding the future of work. One widely discussed solution to this perceived problem is a universal basic income (UBI), provoking debates about the justice, efficiency and political feasibility of such an entitlement, whether such an income should be conditional, and how to ensure that it mitigates rather than exacerbates gender  as well as other inequalities. Leaving aside the question of whether AI will destroy more jobs than it creates, it is important to consider the future of work within the context of the broader struggle over the kind of political and economic settlement that will replace the neo-liberal consensus that has held sway since the 1980s. This model is currently in crisis, having entered what Abby Innes terms its ‘Brezhnevite’ phase of terminal decay, a notable symptom of which is the wave of right-wing nationalism sweeping the globe. If UBI policies are ever implemented they will likely form part of a wider settlement and encompass other transformations such as a green new deal. Since women’s interests are so often confined to the sidelines in such transformations, it is crucial to ensure that UBI proposals are developed using a gender lens.

Two prominent recent basic income proposals illustrate the frequent lack of such a perspective. Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology offers an ambitious new analysis of the drivers of economic development, concluding with a section suggesting ‘elements for a participatory socialism’ – that is, his proposed route beyond the current crisis. In common with radical programmes of the twentieth century (for example, in revolutionary Russia and Germany in 1968), gender inequality and its implications for emancipatory politics are neglected in this analysis. Thus, Piketty’s discussion of the basic income and its potential contribution to securing a more just society does not examine the implications for the gender distribution of unpaid caring and household labour. Indeed, it does not mention gender at all. His basic income appears directed towards a genderless, universal citizen.

Meanwhile, Daniel Susskind’s detailed analysis of the consequences of A World Without Work argues that basic income should be conditional. Susskind displays more interest in gender than Piketty. He acknowledges, for example, that caring and household labour is largely performed on an unpaid basis, predominantly by women, with the combined value of cooking, childcare, laundry and other household chores performed in the UK annually estimated to be approximately £800 billion. Susskind stresses that such work, though crucial to society, is currently undervalued and that a conditional basic income (CBI) would provide “an opportunity to repair this mismatch.” But given that he devotes a whole book to analysing the issue, it is interesting that Susskind does not mention the potential of a basic income to challenge the gendered structures that leave women with the lion’s share of the currently unpaid burden of reproductive labour.

Nevertheless, Susskind’s idea of a conditional basic income does at least potentially address a key question that many analyses of the basic income ignore, that is, as Nancy Folbre asks, does the putative ‘Malibu surfer’ of UBI debates get the same income as the care-worn housewife? (Susskind’s implied answer is that the surfer would have to do some voluntary work as a condition of receiving income). Another solution is provided by Almaz Zelleke who argues that one way of compensating caring labour within the framework of a basic income would be to give it to children as well as adults, as occurs with the cash transfers from the Alaska Permanent Fund. This would provide additional income to those who provide childcare. This does not address all issues, such as the fact that disabled adults and children will likely require a higher level of income. Nevertheless, it highlights the kind of thinking required.

Yet, as is the case with Susskind, discussions of the UBI rarely engage with the potential of such income to challenge the resiliently gendered division of paid and unpaid labour. An exception is Kathy Week’s book The Problem of Work, a feminist analysis of ‘postwork imaginaries,’ which considers the potential of basic incomes to ‘de-centre’ paid work, as well as to disrupt the division of reproductive and productive work and its associated gendered strictures. That is, a basic income offers an opportunity to de-gender breadwinning, domestic labour and care giving by allowing individuals to organise paid work around their lives rather than vice versa. As Weeks stresses, however, such potential can only be realised if feminist perspectives are included in basic income debates.

Such a gendered approach is important for two reasons. First, as Nancy Fraser argues, the current crisis is multi-dimensional: it encompasses ecological, social and economic issues, including skyrocketing inequality. An often-overlooked element is the crisis of care resulting from a shift away from the male breadwinner model which relied on the unpaid caring labour of women. The rise in female employment has brought women vital gains such as economic independence and opportunities for personal development, but since there has been neither a gender redistribution of caring labour nor a socialisation of care work, it has created a ‘care gap’ that manifests itself in rising stress, as well as divisions between those who can afford to pay for care and those who cannot. As noted above, designed in the right way a basic income could begin to address this.

Second, in the current period of crisis gender politics are frequently ‘weaponised’ by right-wing nationalists who construct feminists as alien ‘others’ with interests antithetical to those of the ‘people,’ as if women were not part of that mythical body of homogenous citizens.  Such arguments have found resonance against a background of rising inequality and economic insecurity in which men in dominant ethnic groups fear a loss of status both within the labour market and in the domestic sphere where the challenge to male breadwinning threatens their primacy. Such politics has resulted in attempts to roll back women’s advances in particular through attacks on their reproductive rights. This highlights the need for any new settlement to develop gender solidarity by emphasising the potential gains for both men and women in eschewing constraining gender strictures. Again, a basic income could help to forge such solidarity, as part of a ‘gender new deal.’

Fear is currently trumping hope across much of the world.  It will not be easy to secure a change in political direction. The first step is to provide a positive and compelling vision of the future. It is therefore essential to develop the intellectual basis for a new settlement to address the pressing economic, ecological and social challenges of our troubled era. Debates about the basic income form part of that groundwork and must be informed by a gender perspective.


Sarah Ashwin is professor of comparative employment relations in LSE’s department of management. She is currently researching the governance of global supply chains in the garment industry. The stakeholder report can be found here. Her previous research includes projects on workers’ responses to economic reform in Russia, and gendered power relations in Russia. Professor Ashwin is a member of the editorial board of Gender & Society and on the advisory board of the British Journal of Industrial Relations.

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Opinion: The Nature of Social Inequalities in Great Britain


By                            :               Abdel Abdellaoui, and Judy Luigjes

Date                         :               Oct 21, 2019

Source                     :               The Scientist


In the last century, the Western world has increased its emphasis on effort, talent, and achievement. This opened up opportunities for more people to climb the social ladder in search of a better life. A wider accessibility to an improved educational system in the last century has increased social mobility and has advanced the freedom of many to choose how and where to live. Yet, social inequalities are now growing and social mobility has reportedly been stalling since the 1990s in the richer countries of the world.

An unintended side effect of merit-based social mobility is that it stimulates selective migration; people with a higher education are more likely to move to regions that offer better living conditions and professional opportunities. This “brain drain” may be increasing inequalities between regions. There are large regional inequalities in wealth and health within Great Britain, and in the last 30 years, regional educational inequalities have reportedly grown.

A study from one of us (A.A.) published in Nature Human Behaviour today (October 21) shows that these regional inequalities have a genetic component that is becoming stronger over time. Data on about 450,000 British people of European descent illustrate that people who have more genetic variants linked to higher levels of education are on average more likely to live in wealthier areas of Great Britain, whereas people who have fewer of these variants are on average more likely to live in regions that have faced economic challenges, such as coal mining regions.

The study reveals that these regional genetic differences have been increasing due to migration: people are more likely to leave the poorer regions of the country if they are born with a genetic predisposition for higher educational attainment.

It is not exactly clear yet why these genes are linked to educational attainment; possibly through biological processes that influence traits such as intelligence, perseverance, and industriousness, but also partly because genes that are linked to a higher education are more common in children born to parents with a higher education. These parents tend to have more resources to provide better learning environments for their children, and environmental influences matter for educational outcomes.

Health outcomes such as obesity or diabetes show similar differences between richer and poorer regions. Our study found that these regional health differences could be better explained by environmental influences, such as the amount of fast food restaurants, than by regional differences in genetics. In other words, our chances of living a healthy life are not only influenced by our genes, but are also by where we live.

An unequal distribution of opportunities, benefits, and living circumstances across the country are a potent source for collective frustrations. The five poorest regions in Northern Europe are reportedly all in Great Britain, while the richest region is in London. It is not hard to imagine how the growing regional gap in wealth and health can be fertile ground for growing political differences. People increasingly live in different worlds. Regional differences in genes linked to education are just as much in line with some political differences, the study revealed, as with health and economic outcomes.

Our analyses also looked at regional differences in past and recent general election outcomes and the Brexit referendum. The regional clustering of genes linked to lower education was most strongly in line with votes for parties opposed to the political status quo, namely votes for the UK Independent Party and Brexit Leave votes, similar to previously reported educationally based voting patterns. People who did not vote in 2015 and 2016 were also more likely to come from regions with a higher prevalence of variants linked to lower education than people who did not vote in 1970.

The reward system of our society is based on the ideal that we can improve our lives by climbing the social ladder through our achievements. This type of merit-based social mobility is a good catalyst for societal progress in societies that are fair, as it can motivate people from all social strata to maximize their potential. When social class is regionally bound, however, this meritocratic system can result in migration flows that can exacerbate regional inequalities at a deeper level and lead to a decrease in social mobility.

In search of a solution to this complex problem, we think a good place to start is improving the living conditions of the poorer regions. The current conditions stimulate outwards migration, worse health outcomes, and likely worse educational outcomes as well. If these regional differences in living circumstances remain, the brain drain will continue and regional inequality will deepen. The economic and political unrest that follows will probably be felt across the entire country and beyond.


Abdel Abdellaoui is a population geneticist & behavioral geneticist at the Amsterdam University Medical Centers, where Judy Luigjes is a neuroscientist.

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Not all young people are ‘digital natives’ – inequality hugely limits experiences of technology


By                            :               Simeon Yates

Date                         :               March 14, 2020

Source                     :               The Conversation


There is a belief that younger people are fully engaged with the digital world. But I am currently leading a project exploring people’s knowledge and use of online data, and the preliminary findings from our research has found that data literacy is not uniformly high among younger people, as is often assumed. Instead, some young people have very low levels of data literacy.

We are concerned that widespread perceptions of “digital natives” lead people to believe that digital media use is constant across certain ages or generations, and that all members of this generation have similar experiences of technology. This could not be further from the truth.

Building on our previous research, we have divided digital technology users of all ages into five groups. These are extensive political; extensive; general; limited; and social and media users. Both types of extensive users have a high probability of engaging with the online world, with one being likely to carry out political action online. General users have a moderate level of online engagement, but don’t tend to use social media. Limited users have a low probability of engaging with any digital systems.

The “social and media” group is young – most are under 25 – and mainly makes use of social media, entertainment media like Netflix and YouTube, and games. They sound like your archetypal “digital natives”. In fact, they are one of the groups on the wrong side of the line with regard to digital inequalities in the UK, and appear to lack critical thinking skills and knowledge about the digital world. Our research also shows that this matches up with other social inequalities such as level of education, housing and employment level.

By contrast, the two extensive groups also contain young people, aged between 16 and 25. However, these younger people are more likely to have or be undertaking higher education – and show far higher data and digital literacy.

Understanding data

Our project has highlighted three key areas of data literacy. These are data thinking, data doing, and data participation.

“Data thinking” covers critical skills – being able to assess and check data in the online environment. For example, this includes being able to understand how social media companies might use information about us, and thinking about the reliability of information we find online.

“Data doing” focuses on practical skills involving data handling and data management. For example, it might cover social media users being able to identify and highlight the source of the information they share with others. Or it might involve identifying reliable data from the internet that will help you in your everyday life.

“Data participation” covers our shared experience of digital society. Examples might include a person who actively contributes to online forums, or helps others to engage with digital systems.

We have found that social and media users have much lower levels of data thinking, doing and participating than all other groups bar limited users. Limited users are much older – post retirement – and are likely to have very few if any school qualifications.

The social and media users show some of the lowest understanding of how their data is shared and used to create value. Compared to other groups, they had the lowest levels of concern about how online platforms operate. For example, 38% were happy to be targeted with advertising, and 35% trusted online retailers with their data. This compares to figures of 5% and 25% for the general users group.

Other inequalities

Our research also shows how digital inequalities correspond with other key elements of economic, social and cultural inequality. As well as being young, “social and media users” are very likely to have left education at 16-18 with basic GCSE qualifications. They are often lower skilled and in lower income work or unemployed. They are likely to be in social housing of some form, and may be living at home with parents. In other research we also found that they consume a less varied range of arts and heritage and have more limited social networks than other groups.

On the surface, they might look like the archetypal “digital natives”: young people deeply engaged with social and entertainment media, and with their smart phone to hand all the time. But our social and media users are a group marked by narrow and limited digital media use and a lack of data literacy. They are likely to come from some of the poorest households in the country.

Though age has played a key factor in many aspects of digital exclusion to date – and it is a defining feature of limited and non-internet use – it is by no means the only factor. Aspects of social inequality such as education and social class have a huge impact on how we experience digital technologies. They affect the skills we acquire and our ability to think critically about the systems, platforms, data, information and content we encounter.


Simeon Yates , Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor Research Environment and Postgraduate Research, University of Liverpool

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