Trust Inequality

Megatrend One:
Trust Inequality

Dover, U.K., 2017

A Brexit-inspired mural by British artist Banksy in Dover, southeast England. It was painted close to a ferry terminal that connects the U.K. to mainland Europe and shows a worker chipping away at a star on the E.U. flag.

Trust has fractured. It’s not that trust has been broken, it’s that we are deeply divided on trust: the fortunate few have far higher levels of trust in the system than the many. And the gap is getting wider.

In the past decade, trust inequality has been the most consequential development in understanding what’s happened to public confidence in politics and business, media and non-government organizations. While trust in institutions among the informed public – aka the well-educated and the wealthy – has been rising and is now at an all-time high, trust in those same institutions among the mass population has flatlined. The result? The trust gap between the elites and the people has nearly tripled in size.

We have a mass-class divide. In the 2010s, the trust gap – i.e., the difference between the trust scores of the informed public over the mass population – has nearly doubled for NGOs, more than doubled for government and business, and more than quadrupled for media. Any way you look at it, it’s been a tough decade for institutions. And it explains the bonanza in populism and activism.

If you add up all the numbers, informed public and mass population alike, then things appear to average out: the aggregate levels of global trust have held up. But it doesn’t feel that way. Because we are divided on trust: the way you see the world depends on who you are – i.e., age, gender, race. It depends on where you live, whether West or East, democracy or autocracy. It depends on what you earn – in fact, not just your income, but your disposable income. And it depends, crucially, on how long you’ve studied – education is a determinant of trust, as the more you’ve studied the more you’re likely to believe the world is on your side.

The seeds of trust inequality growth in the 2010s were largely sowed in the first decade of the 21st century.

Global General Population Distrusts Institutions

Percent trust in institutions, general online population, 16-market average, and change from 2012-2020


The global financial crisis has taken a decade-long toll. The aftermath was unequal. Many people lost their jobs; many more have found themselves working longer hours for the same money or less. At the same time, the decision by policymakers to reduce interest rates to nearly zero and bail out the banks meant that those people who have assets – property, shares, wealth – have done well. The richest have done staggeringly well. Whether you are Thomas Piketty, a French economist, or Ray Dalio, an American hedge fund billionaire, the post-financial crisis has focused your mind on inequality of wealth and incomes. In the U.S. the top 1 percent captured 95 percent of income growth from 2009 to 2012, according to MIT Technology Review.

It’s not just been inequality that has sapped faith in institutions. The aftermath of the financial crisis was not the 1930s-style depression some feared. Employment has been stubbornly, historically high. But it’s been an anemic, feel-bad recovery. Wages have not grown much. In the U.K., for example, the median pre-tax earnings of an employee fell by 3 percent in real terms between 2010 and 2018. At the same time, the quality and security of work has changed. In the U.S., there’s been a surge in gig economy workers: 57 million employees now have gig economy jobs, making up 36 percent of U.S. workers, according to Forbes. In Europe, and to a lesser extent the U.S., we’ve seen low wage growth, less job security, a slip in living standards and, as a result, people’s expectations have faded too. Arguably, the biggest casualty of the 2008 financial crisis has been the belief that if you work hard you’ll have a better life than your parents. This is not emotional, it’s experiential: in 2018, median real earnings for employees in the U.K. were 13 percent below expectations based on rates of growth seen in the years before the crisis. For millions of people, a century-old dream died in the 2010s.

There are many ways to cut the inequality problem. Perhaps the most telling one for trust is generational. The last real generation gap transformed politics, society, and culture between the first Beatles album (1963) and the fading of punk (1979); in the 2010s, a new, equally consequential divide between the baby boomers and the millennials yawned wider open. It’s economic: as the U.S. Federal Reserve reported in 2016, the average real net worth of millennial households in the U.S. was $92,000, around 20 percent less than baby boomer households in 1989 and nearly 40 percent less than Generation X households in 2001. It’s demographic: the OECD found in 2019 that, on average, there are four people of working age for every one of pension age in OECD countries. This ratio will fall to three-to-one by the late 2030s and two-to-one by 2050. And it reaches into when we start a family and where we call home: in the past decade the share of American 18-34 year-olds living with their parents has surpassed the share who are head of a household.

History made a comeback. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama, the U.S. political scientist, published The End of History, arguing that Western liberal democracy had won the argument with statists and autocrats. Well, in the first 20 years of the 21st century, the argument was reopened between East and West, China and the U.S., state planners and market forces. This was by no means an academic debate. With the loss of 5 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S. since 2000, the leftie anti-globalization protesters in Seattle in 1999 had been replaced by pro-business nationalists on the right in the 2010s. In 2018, Kishore Mahbubani, the Singaporean diplomat and academic, published Has the West Lost It? It not only asked a question, it marked a shift in the balance of power and captured a mood of growing self-confidence in the East and gathering self-doubt in the West. The past two decades have seen geopolitical and household budget expectations reset by Easternization. In the past few years, the countries with the highest levels of public trust in government, business, and the media are frequently to be found in Asia.

As the economy sputtered and the power axis tipped, governments have struggled to do what’s expected of them. Take national security. The optimism of the new millennium quickly gave way to a new age of insecurity on September 11, 2001. In the years since, wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan have cost American taxpayers $5.9 trillion. And, in that time, more than 480,000 people have died from the wars and more than 244,000 civilians have been killed as a result of fighting. Additionally, another 10 million people have been displaced by the violence.

Trust in All Institutions at All-Time Highs Among Global Informed Public

Percent trust, informed public age 35-64, 16-market average, and change from 2007-2020

  • Business
  • NGOs
  • Media
  • Government

Or consider natural disasters. In Japan, the earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear disaster left nearly 20,000 people dead, injured or missing and displaced more than 200,000 others. Japanese trust in government has only slowly recovered. Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana and Florida, resulting in more than 1,500 deaths and more than 150,000 people looking for shelter. Similarly, it is evident that it did lasting damage to public confidence in the capability of the U.S. government. And, in the past few years, the frequency of violent weather events and rising economic migration has forged into a frustration about global governments’ failure to tackle climate change. The argument against government has morphed from a failure to administrate to a vacuum of leadership. The public increasingly points to the climate crisis to explain their loss of trust in government.

To be clear, more people in more places have never had it so good. There has never been a time in human history when it is easier to live longer, learn more, love who you want, and be as you are. Personalized computing power and the networking of the world – aka the smart phone and the internet – have put unimaginable power in the hands of the individual. There’s a reason that 5 billion people, at the last count, have mobile phones, half of them smartphones, and nearly 4.5 billion people are active internet users. These are the enabling technologies of our age.

They have also rewired trust. They have ripped up the relationship between people and TV: the U.S. broadcast networks averaged 28.5 million viewers in primetime, a decline of 7.3 million viewers (20 percent) since 2014-15 alone. The number of jobs in U.S. newsrooms fell by about 28,000 – or 25 percent – between 2008 and 2018. And the challenge of the new media was for more than just habits and livelihoods. It’s proved to be a battle for truth.

Double-Digit Trust Gap for All Four Institutions

Percent trust, 16-market average, and gap between informed public 35-64 and mass population

Social media has upended trust in institutions. It’s put a very exciting and visible amount of power in the hands of the smartphone user, but also a worrying and much more opaque degree of power in the hands of the network operator, i.e., the social media platform. Noise and nonsense. Misinformation and exaggeration. Filter bubbles and extremism. The new media marketplace has proved more polarizing and unreliable than any media that’s gone before it. And while one-party states have used technology to reboot social control, investing more in propaganda and state messaging, the Western democracies have stood by and watched the digital Wild West aghast. People don’t know who to believe and believe what they want to. It’s the age of truthiness.

Trust suffers too when hard truths have been exposed. It was not only Lance Armstrong who was doping. During his seven Tour de France “wins” (1999-2005), 87 percent of the top-10 finishers (61 of 70) were confirmed dopers or suspected of doping. Volkswagen’s diesel cars may have expelled 40 times the allowed levels of toxic nitrogen oxide; 11 million cars may have been fitted with software to cheat diesel emissions tests. The company has already paid $30 billion in fines. After the exposure of sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein in 2017, #MeToo became not just a hashtag but a movement: 54 percent of American women told The Washington Post and ABC News that they had received unwanted and inappropriate sexual behavior and 95 percent of people thought such things went unpunished.

We live in a more networked world with more of us having greater access to the same information than ever before. But the picture on trust is anything but united. We live in two trust realities

New Records for Trust Inequality

Trust gap between the informed public and mass population

8 markets with record high inequality in 2020, the largest number ever measured

Futaba, Japan, 2011

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant three days after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s east coast. The loss of power at the plant caused cooling systems to fail, fuel rods to melt, explosions to destroy buildings and radiation to be released.