by Sarah Kaiser
This month, the British Social Attitudes Survey showed that Britain has become significantly more tolerant over the past 30 years. During this time, our society has changed dramatically: alongside shifting public attitudes, we have made huge advances in legal protections against discrimination. Now that we have reached so far, what is next for equalities? Are there any more battles still to be fought and won?
There is a growing divide between the younger and older generations which is likely to shape the future of equalities. The older generation grew up against a backdrop of glaring intolerance and identity politics. They fought a hard battle to secure every right that we enjoy today. What is surprising is how recent many of those victories were. It seems strange now to think that it is only 20 years since rape in marriage was recognised as a crime and that as recently as ten years ago, people could be fired just because they were gay.
The younger generation is coming of age in a more globalised, digital and tolerant age where diversity is not just accepted – it is expected. As a result, they are far less likely to define themselves by their equality characteristics and resist being ‘labelled’. They are baffled by the sheer number of boxes on equality monitoring forms, by the stupidity of prejudice, and even by those equality campaigners who proudly identify as black, gay or disabled. To them, these things just don’t seem relevant.
This promises a very exciting future. A society that doesn’t judge people on their gender, the colour of their skin, or the sex of those they love. Where difference is valued and celebrated. Where people are free to be themselves in every part of their life. It’s a place where I would like to live.
But there is something that worries me – a dark side to the vision. When younger people tell me that they are blind to our differences, I wonder if that means they are also blind to those very real inequalities that people still experience because of those differences. Do they notice the inequalities that persist in our society? That women are still expected to take on the majority of childcare and domestic responsibilities? Or that less than 50% of working-age disabled people are in employment? Or even that taller people earn more over their lifetimes than their shorter counterparts?
What fights will the next generation of equality campaigners choose to take on? We’ve recently seen Ginger Pride marches in Scotland, allegations of fat- and thin-shaming playing out over social media, and tabloid claims that motorists are being persecuted. I can see a future where these groups or others – perhaps single people or those living in rural areas – step forward to claim more protections against discrimination.
It has always been easier to challenge direct discrimination – treating people badly because of who they are – than the more insidious indirect discrimination – policies or practices which disadvantage some people because of their equality characteristics. We need to pay attention to how who we are affects our life outcomes if we are to identify and dismantle these deeper structural inequalities.
We see ever more frequent attempts to undermine and dismantle the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act. We cannot let these protections be taken away from us. The reality is that inequalities remain in our society – and always will do so. We move on and we progress but we will never achieve a perfect society. New inequalities will emerge, and so will new equality groups. Above all need to remember how hard it was to get to this point, how recently many of these rights were won and that none of the protections we now enjoy are guaranteed.
Equality isn’t guaranteed. The worst danger for the future of equality would be for us to become too comfortable.
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