It used to be that the battle to overcome inequality was about money. It was about helping the poor get better jobs so they could access a larger slice of the economic pie.
What if that approach to inequality is no longer relevant?
In the latest edition of its Human Development Report, the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) argues that 20th-century thinking on global inequality no longer works in the 21st century. The report warns that a new generation of inequities are driving street protests and damaging societies — and they’re on track to get worse.
Each year the UNDP looks at human progress around the globe. This year the authors say that major societal shifts around technology, education and climate change are creating a “new great divergence.” Achim Steiner, the UNDP administrator, sums up the problem this way: “an increasing number of young people are educated, connected and stuck with no ladder of choices to move up.”
Global inequality is now more about disparities in opportunity than disparities in income.
“What we are seeing is an opening up of a new generation of inequalities, particularly centered around the emerging middle classes of societies,” Steiner says. “What people perhaps 30, 40 years ago were led to believe and often saw around them,” Steiner says, “was that if you worked hard, you could escape poverty.” Yet in many countries today, he says upward social mobility is “simply not occurring” anymore.
The Human Development Report 2019 makes the case that many of the street protests popping up around the globe are driven by a growing sense that societies are rigged to favor the powerful and trap the masses in low-wage, dead-end lives.
And those inequities can start even before birth. “This new generation of inequality is interesting,” Steiner says. “It has to do with what you could call the micro-inequalities — the things that I perceive as unfair in my country and my community in my society.” Some of those inequities start before birth and burden individuals deep into adulthood.