[Translate to English:] Reihe von Menschen, die über einen Platz läuft

Perceived injustice: Perception of fairness in Germany

Many Germans believe unfairness is gaining the upper hand. However, the willingness to make a personal contribution to change remains low.


Foto Kai Unzicker
Dr. Kai Unzicker
Senior Project Manager


Most Germans perceive the distribution of goods and assets, also between the generations, as unfair in their country. This is a cause for concern: People who perceive more injustice place less trust in politics and institutions and are less likely to embrace change.

Only 17 percent of those surveyed in Germany report a sense of distributive justice in the country, and 27 percent say there is fairness between the generations. The share of those who are convinced of the fairness of their own assets (34%) and income (35%) is somewhat higher. There are clear differences in this regard between different population groups: People with higher incomes and higher levels of formal education, those who have surpassed their parents' education level and men see society as being significantly more fair than those with lower incomes, lower levels of education and women.

These are the findings of our recently released study, "Perceptions of Fairness in Germany," which is based on an online survey of 4,900 people that we conducted together with the Munich-based ifo Institute for Economic Research at the end of 2021. The study explored the broader state of distributive justice in German society, perceptions of fairness with regard to one's own income and assets, as well as intergenerational justice.

A rather weak sense of fairness has prevailed in Germany for quite a while now, but given the difficulty of the current economic situation, high inflation rates and the challenges of the transformative change we are undergoing as a society, this issue has become vitally relevant.

Dr. Kai Unzicker, Social Cohesion Expert, Bertelsmann Stiftung

People complain about injustice, but are not very willing to embrace change

This is a worrying finding for politicians, as trust in politics and government institutions correlates with perceptions of justice. Moreover, people who perceive things to be unfair are also less willing to embrace change. However, considering the current challenges we face as a society, policymakers are now more than ever dependent on a broad sense of legitimacy. If perceptions of injustice continue to grow, this will further diminish social cohesion.

The study shows, on the one hand, a strong desire for redistribution. For example, 75 percent of respondents favor efforts to reduce the gap between rich and poor, and 68 percent believe more needs to be done to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. On the other hand, only 37 percent express a willingness to pay higher taxes themselves.

We see a similar paradox when we examine perceptions of intergenerational justice. More than half of those surveyed say that they anticipate a decline in prosperity among younger people. However, introducing changes such as adjusting the German pension system, expanding the right to vote to younger generations or writing off new debts are supported in each case by less than 20 percent of the respondents. Climate change is the only issue where this is not the case. Here we see much stronger support (69%) for exercising greater commitment to achieving climate goals.

In addition to the desire for redistribution comes the need for self-efficacy. The survey shows a total of 62 percent of respondents stating that they believe personal wealth in Germany generally depends on luck or a person's family background. At the same time, personal wealth is considered to be just and fair when people are in a position to influence this themselves. The state's role in this regard is perceived to be one of creating the conditions for them to do so. An overwhelming majority of respondents show approval for two pillars of Germany's social market economy: 85 percent support the equity principle (according to which those who work harder should earn more) and 95 percent the need principle (according to which a just society takes care of the weak and those in need).

Information on injustice leads to paradoxical reactions

However, the study also points to the challenges involved with communicating state efforts to create fairness. As part of an experiment, some respondents were given information on the distribution of wealth and age demographics in Germany to see if this additional knowledge would change perceptions of fairness.

It was found that the actual inequality in the distribution of wealth and the overrepresentation of older people in the population were significantly underestimated. Exposure to correct information, however, yielded a surprising result: Among those respondents who self-identify as politically centrist or on the left, knowledge of the facts had no bearing on their perception of fairness. And those respondents who identify politically more to the right still perceive greater fairness in society than other comparable respondents in the control group – despite knowing that the distribution of goods and assets in society is more unequal than they had previously assumed.

According to the study's team of researchers, this might be explained by the tendency to perceive as untrustworthy information that contradicts one's beliefs, particularly if this information is politically relevant. The fact that exposure to information does not necessarily lead to a change in attitude, but can even have paradoxical effects, has implications for efforts to communicate policies through various media. In times like these, when we need to stem the tide of people turning their backs to democracy as they find the solutions to their experience of injustice by either not voting or voting for protest parties, we must proceed with caution.