Life Satisfaction Inequality in European Countries: Trends, Conditions, and Political Collateral Damages

About this Session


Fri. 12.04. 11:50



Authors – Marcus Gercke, Leonie C. Steckermeier, Jan Delhey.


Social inequality is usually studied as the unequal distribution of resources, typically of economic resources such as income. An alternative approach is to study the unequal distribution of individuals’ subjective life results as summarized in perceptions of personal quality-of-life – the inequality in life satisfaction. For some time now, European societies are in heavier waters than usual, especially due to rising economic inequality and various crises, such as the financial crisis, the Euro crisis, and the increased influx of migrants. These developments could have elevated within-country inequality in life satisfaction, especially between the rich and the poor. However, other, positive developments may have countered rising inequality in life satisfaction, such as the steady increase in national prosperity and the legal empowerment especially of sexual and gender minorities. Against this background, this paper examines whether inequality in life satisfaction has risen over time (RQ 1); how economic, social, and political conditions are associated with the extent of this inequality (RQ 2); and what consequences this inequality has for peoples’ satisfaction with democracy (RQ 3). Our analysis is based on data for thirty European countries from nine waves of the European Social Survey (2002-2018), supplemented by macro indicators (e.g. on income distribution). Methodologically, a distinctive feature is that we examine the inequality in life satisfaction within a society from the perspective of both overall inequality and the degree of polarization between income groups. In terms of trends (RQ 1), our results suggest that most European countries are on their path to lower overall levels of life satisfaction inequality; in contrast, we find an increasing polarization between income groups in more than half of the countries. With respect to conditions (RQ 2), the extent of overall life satisfaction inequality is systematically lower in wealthier and more trusting countries and higher in more economically unequal countries. In contrast, the extent of group polarization is largely independent of socioeconomic conditions. As to political consequences (RQ 3), we find greater life satisfaction inequality closely and robustly associated to greater inequality in satisfaction in democracy – and the same holds true for group polarization. One conclusion from our research is that closing the life satisfaction gap especially between income groups would not only improve the well-being of disadvantaged groups in society, but would also secure more ready support for democracy.