A recent survey done by Populus for the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) suggests that there is quite a difference of opinion between those over 45 and under 45 concerning our country’s future priorities.

How the government spends our taxation payments is fully under the microscope. Do people ever really want a tax increase? And, if so, which taxes should go up: National Insurance, income tax, change to the tax thresholds? Or should businesses pay more VAT and tax on their profits? None of these are easy questions to answer. This survey poses some interesting questions and produces reliable figures. How usefully they can be used is another matter.

How do we know?

Before we look at any findings, it is important to know how these statistics were gathered and how large a sample group were asked the questions.

Populus is the name of the company that carried out the survey. They are a member of the British Polling Council and follow their rules. They set up an online survey of questions and asked 2,096 British people that are over 18, between 15th and 16th October 2016. They set limits on how many of each category could respond in order to get a more representative look at different ages. The categories are; age, region and gender. The survey was set up so that only so many of each category could complete the form.

As stated on their website, the RSA’s Mission is: “21st century enlightenment: Enriching society through ideas and action. Our mission is to create the conditions for the enlightened thinking and collaborative action needed to address today’s most pressing social challenges. We serve this mission by acting as a global hub, by enabling millions of people to access the most creative ideas, by nurturing networks of innovators, and through researching, testing and sharing practical interventions.

What did the survey ask about tax?

The survey asked a variety of questions, with a range of answers for the participants to choose from.

The results have been divided into the following age groups: 18-24,25-34, 35-44, 45-54, 55-64, 65+.

Several news outlets, including The Guardian, have reported on the findings they find most significant.

For example, in the Tax and Spend section this question ‘Which of the following best reflects your views​?’ has the following options:

  • We should raise taxes and increase spending on public services
  • The current balance is about right
  • We should cut taxes and reduce spending on public services
  • Don’t know

What’s your response?

What the survey said

The generalised overall average is that 41% think that taxes should go up to increase the spend on public services. This rises to 54% in the over 65s and goes down to 30% in the 25-34 group. 33% of the youngest survey participants said taxes should rise to fund public services. Much is being made of this as a huge generational divide. That younger people perhaps don’t care about the NHS and other services as much as older people. But is that true? We can’t really know this purely from figures.

An average of 14% overall said that both public services spending and taxes should be cut, with a slight increase of 19% in the 18-24 year old category. The highest for this answer is the 25-34 year olds at 21%.

The ‘why’ to these answers is very important and was not asked during the survey. It seems obvious that, as old age is often accompanied by poorer health, that older people will feel safer with an increased commitment from government to the services they increasingly use. Perhaps our 25-34 section of the population are just really struggling financially and need any tax breaks they can get.

How do we pay for our social care?

The specific question in the survey asked, ‘Which one of the following, if any, do you think should be adopted as a solution to social care funding?’ The options were:

  • Increasing taxation
  • Greater means testing
  • Cuts to other areas of public spending
  • Greater use of volunteers/reform
  • None of the above

The most talked about statistic is the first answer.

  • Average of all ages: 35%
  • 18-24s: 23%
  • 65+s: 54%

This is understandable. There is little support for cutting other areas of public spending (average 7%) and greater means testing (average 15%) from any group. The more interesting divide in these numbers is that 35% of 18-24 year olds see greater use of volunteers/reform as the answer and only 16% of the over 65s agree. There is also an average of 23% across the 35-65 year olds that have gone with none of the above. Wonder what their alternative solutions are.

The future of the UK

The last question we’ll look at in this article is all about the future of the UK. ‘Which, if any of the following, do you think we should focus on over the next decade to make our country a better place to live? [Please select up to 3 options]’

The overall averages from the survey are:

  • Inequality (49%)
  • Ageing society (49%)
  • Isolation/mental ill-health (35%)
  • Climate change (35%)
  • International relations/Brexit (33%)

There is quite a lot of consensus between the age groups, if you look at their top three answer. All age groups had Inequality in their top three. All had Isolation/Mental Ill health in their top three, apart from the over 65s. All had Ageing Society in their top three, apart from the youngest two categories.

27% of the 18-24s counted Technology as an important societal factor and they are the only group to mention this area at all.

There are discrepancies between the percentages of different ages, such as Climate change being the top issue for the youngest group at 48%. And 72% of the over 65s ranking Ageing Society as the most important factor.

These statistics and how they are reported and used is very interesting. They tell us something, but not the whole picture. We can’t know all the different reasons why people have answered the way they have. We can’t even know if, for example, everyone means the same thing by ‘Inequality’. Tax often seems quite straightforward: we pay an amount to the government and they pay for x,y and z. But the nuances of how the public purse is spent are tricky to navigate. Do you agree with the majority?

The director of public services and communities at the RSA, Ed Cox, reflects this complexity in his summary of the survey’s findings:

“The NHS can’t afford to keep mitigating our failure to invest in what leads to good health: a welfare system that promotes economic security; investment in early years, education and skills; and better quality jobs for all.

The public is open to a conversation on public spending, but aside from a shared commitment to tackling inequality, there is neither a clear consensus on tax increases nor agreement on how any extra money is spent. The younger generations who’ll pay for increased spending see climate change and technological adaptation as greater challenges than the ageing society.

These challenges require us to think more creatively about how we involve citizens in decision-making, as well as enabling people to take a much greater role themselves in tackling inequality and social injustices.”

We seem to have ended up with more questions than answers.