Why is our society becoming so acceptable


Inequality is increasingly a topic of debate. The core question is: How fairly are the opportunities to participate in a society and to shape your own life? Regardless of whether it is about climate justice, educational opportunities or income differences. An inventory

They sit on the floor, they hold banners. It says “The climate is changing. Why aren’t we? "Or" The fish used to be in the package. Today the pack is in the fish ”. You have a goal. “Are you here to save the planet?” Asks the young man on stage. "Yeah," calls out the crowd and chants. Fast, shrill, rhythmic. "We are here, we are loud because you are stealing the future from us!" The sun is burning, thick soap bubbles drift over our heads. In the front the young man shouts: “It's time for us students to become radical again, to take us on the streets.” A young woman shouts: “The European elections in two days will be a climate election. This election is our last chance. ”A young girl shouts:“ We have been praised by the dirtiest companies, by the greatest politicians. Okay kids, got it, back to school now. I say: nice try. We won't leave until the climate curves actually change. ”The crowd claps and hops and screams:“ Yeah. ”“ What do we want? ”-“ Climate justice ”, it shouts from thousands of children. "When do we want it?" - "Noooow!"

Berlin, Brandenburg Gate, a Friday at the end of May. Tens of thousands of young people have gathered on this Friday For Future, here in Berlin and in more than 250 cities across Europe. To protest that something is changing. Because now it matters. Because they know it's about the survival of the planet. Because they fear for their future, which others decide, not themselves. "That is not fair," says one student. "For me this is a form of inequality that I no longer want to endure."

More protest

Inequality - there is probably no other topic that is being debated as intensely at the moment. Regardless of whether it is about climate justice, income, education, differences between East and West Germany, origin, housing or gender. It seems to have gotten into trouble, in Germany and in many other western societies. In large German cities people are protesting against absurdly inflated rents, in France yellow vests are radicalizing in the struggle for more social equality, right-wing populist groups are gaining popularity everywhere with the promise of simple solutions. “It doesn't help to hope that it will pass,” says the Munich sociologist Stephan Lessenich. “Inequality is a fundamental element of societies. But if the inequalities get too big, that leads to strong conflicts. ”It is time for a critical discussion, demands Lessenich. How acceptable is inequality? How equal or unequal is our society anyway? How should it be What can we do to make it the way we want it?

Equal rights, one vote

When sociology deals with inequality, it usually speaks of social inequality. "Democratic societies offer promises of equality that are undisputed: no matter how other people differ, everyone has a voice in democracy and the same rights," explains Armin Nassehi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Munich. “But there are also inequality generators. Through the economic and educational systems, for example, which are there to legitimately bring people into different positions. ”Without a high school diploma, you can usually not study; only those with qualification X can take up occupation Y. The idea is that anyone who achieves a lot earns more. Nassehi: "Dynamic societies always produce inequalities and that is accepted by the members of society." If they find it justified.

Take salary, for example: 74 percent of Germans consider larger salary differences to be fair if they are based on competence and performance, according to a survey by the Allensbach opinion research institute in May. It only becomes problematic when social inequalities are no longer seen as legitimate. If, for example, large differences in income are not based on competence and performance, or if inequality features such as origin, educational level of the family or gender structurally lead to inequality of treatment. It becomes problematic when inequalities cement themselves in a society and parts of its members have the feeling that they are deprived of their life chances and opportunities for advancement. “What matters is: Do people have the chance to improve?” Says sociologist Nassehi. As in the 1970s: educational opportunities for all classes were massively expanded, the economy was purring, more and more people from formally poorly educated families succeeded in making the move to universities and better jobs. Nassehi: “Today the ascent has become more difficult and many layers are not participating in the booming economy. In addition, industrial society is coming to an end, some things are being reorganized, and uncertainty is growing. ”Inequalities are increasingly losing their legitimacy.

Dynamic societies always produce inequalities and this is accepted by the members of the society - if they feel it is justified

More income inequality

How best to measure the degree of inequality is controversial in the social sciences. Most of the time, research first takes a close look at easily quantifiable incomes and assets. A clear picture emerges here: income inequality is increasing. This is shown on the one hand by the Gini coefficient, an established indicator for measuring income inequality. It covers a scale from 0 to 1, the higher the value, the greater the inequality. From 1991 to 2016 this value rose from just under 0.25 to a good 0.29. Another measurement method compares the income of a person in the bottom ten percent with a person in the top ten percent. It confirms that household income in the upper group was 3.7 times higher in 2016 than in the lower group. In the 1990s, this ratio was still 3. The lowest income groups are not benefiting from economic growth; household income inequality has increased, especially since the financial crisis. "The income gap is widening, polarization is growing," sums up Jürgen Schupp from the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin.

In addition, there are more people in work, but at the same time the number of non-regular employees is increasing. The “working poor” who get by with one or more poorly paid, insecure jobs. Their yield is barely enough to sustain life. Fewer and fewer people manage to get out of this situation. While before 2002 a total of 46 percent of people in the lowest income group were able to work their way up within 5 years, 15 years later only 41 percent manage to do so.

The inequality of wealth is growing even more strongly than it is for income: According to DIW, the richest 10 percent of the population have 63.83 percent of wealth in Germany, the poorest 50 percent only 2.26 percent. More than half of the assets were inherited or donated. On the other hand, 40 percent of Germans have no savings. However, it is not the money alone that counts. Another important indicator of inequality is life expectancy, emphasizes sociologist Lessenich. "Statistically, someone who earns more than 3500 euros a month lives around ten years longer than someone who has only 1500 euros in their wallet a month," says Lessenich. “To simply attribute this to the behavior of the lower classes is not enough. It is an indicator of tough, structural inequality and a social imbalance in society. "

The extent to which inequality is increasing in Germany in various dimensions is also confirmed by the study “Unequally Germany: Socio-Economic Disparities Report 2019”, which the Institute for Regional and Urban Development Research Dortmund (ILS) carried out on behalf of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES). The highlight: the study not only looked at inequality in terms of income and wealth, but also examined a mix of 20 categories in the various regions and cities in Germany. This includes employment and child poverty as well as life expectancy, early school leaving, voter participation and internal migration. Result: "The socio-economic inequality in Germany has solidified."

“The factors reinforce each other, especially in regions where several inequality factors come together,” summarizes Philipp Fink from the FES. Where employment opportunities are limited and the infrastructure is weak, there is an increase in emigration, unemployment, child poverty and dropping out of school, life expectancy and tax revenues of the municipalities decrease, in which overburdened administrations are less and less able to counteract the downward spiral. Sometimes there is even a lack of staff to call up urgently needed funding from the European Union. In the dynamic boom regions such as Munich, Leipzig or Chemnitz, new opportunities are emerging, but on the other hand, rising costs of living and overloaded infrastructures are putting even middle-income people under pressure. Social cohesion is crumbling. ILS study director Stefan Fina: "There are many Germanys in Germany, and they are extremely unequal."

To understand inequality, it is extremely important to have a broad perspective. Because not only in Germany, all over the world it is typical: overlaps and non-simultaneities, trends and counter-trends. Or, like the Kassel sociologist Heinz Bude in his new book “Solidarity. The future of a great idea "writes about the development of global inequality over the past 30 years:" Everything is getting better and worse at the same time. "According to calculations by the World Bank, the number of the absolute poor in the world, that is, of those who Have less than $ 1.90 a day available, halved from two billion in 1993 to one billion in 2012. The same applies to child mortality, life expectancy and the educational participation of girls.

Simultaneous and unequal, trends and counter-trends: everything is getting better and worse at the same time

Regional differences

But the regional differences are considerable. While a dynamic middle class is emerging in countries like India, Malaysia or Nigeria that sends their children to good universities, the situation is deteriorating in economically and socially broken countries like Liberia or Mozambique. On the other hand, while the gap between north and south is narrowing - 20 years ago the standard of living in Germany or France was 20 times as high as in China or India, today it is only 10 times as high - the inequalities within the Societies too. In the USA, for example, social inequality has returned to the level it was 100 years ago, and the life expectancy of white men without a college degree fell by three years between 1990 and 2007 alone. The number of Britons who from time to time forego a meal for financial reasons has more than doubled since 1983 to 28 percent. Bude: "The fractures and divisions within the common social world have become stronger and tougher."

In addition, pessimism dominates even where the figures could be optimistic. The Swedish sociologist Hans Rosling writes in his book “Factfulness” because we compare averages, think in black and white patterns, and also suspect negatives where there are positive things to be told. Example: Although child labor fell from 28 to 10 percent between 1950 and 2012, most estimate it to be higher. For example, although crime has been falling in the US since the 1990s, nearly 70 percent of the American population believe it is increasing. Similar mechanisms intensify the perception of inequality: even if the likelihood of decline of the middle class has not increased according to the Socio-Economic Panel, the concern about decline is particularly present in this class. A society that thinks “the fat years are over” is more pessimistic about itself.

Society has become more sensitive. Politicians must take countermeasures. Otherwise we will soon have Mondays For Future too

Limited leeway

Sociologist Lessenich warns, however, against “belittling” this perception as “feeling”. “Certainly, people tend to compare themselves upwards and would like to differentiate themselves downwards. But in the end, their assessment reflects a real-life impression of their situation, ”says Lessenich. When rental costs rise to such an extent that people have to spend 50 percent of their income on living and cannot be sure whether they can stay in the neighborhood at all in the event of a termination for personal use, the impression solidifies: My ability to act is immeasurably limited.

For Lessenich, the feeling of the individual ability to act is the most important qualitative category with which inequality can be sociologically described. More important than material goods, even more important than immaterial goods such as health and education. Because many social inequalities can overlap in every person. Perhaps I am well paid, but as a religious person in a secular society, I feel that my needs are not taken seriously and that, as a woman from the East, the majority society also smiles at me. “Inequality is a very complex phenomenon and often ambiguous in individual cases. It is therefore helpful to ask: What options for action and life chances does a person have in his specific social constellation? ”Says Lessenich. "Is he able to appropriate his environment, to participate in certain social processes as a fully fledged actor?"

That doesn't just mean employment and educational opportunities, but also opportunities for action in many fields. When especially young people from the middle class with excellent education who were born in the 00s take to the streets with Fridays For Future, they also protest against the fact that, due to a catastrophically failed climate policy in the present, they will only be in 20 years will still have very limited opportunities to shape their lives.

There is some evidence that societies that offer all members fair opportunities and produce few inequalities are better for all. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have this in their book, Equality. Why just societies are better for everyone ”can convincingly demonstrate. In almost all parameters from health to happiness, social problems to CO2Emissions were far better off in societies with low income inequalities, regardless of how high the society's per capita income was in absolute terms. “Our psychological reactions to the degrees of inequality in society,” the authors write, “are very deep. Our tendency to equate external wealth with internal value means that inequality colors our social perception. It evokes deep psychological reactions - feelings of dominance and subordination, superiority and inferiority - that affect the way we see and treat one another. "

In Germany, inequality remains an issue more than ever. But there is a growing awareness of how important it is to deal with the drifting apart of society - and to take countermeasures. The recent debates have shown this. "Society has become more sensitive to inequalities and questions of justice," observes Jürgen Schupp. In this country and in the industrialized countries as a whole. It is no coincidence, according to the DIW researcher, that in September 2015 the United Nations included a new goal for the “developed countries” for the first time in the Sustainable Development Goals up to 2030: a fairer distribution of income. The income growth of the poorest 40 percent of a population is said to be higher than the plus of the average. "In Germany we are still a long way from that," said Schupp. “Politicians urgently need to take countermeasures. Otherwise we will soon also have 'Mondays For Future'. "

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