A majority of highly paid British voters believe they are on average incomes, according to exclusive polling for the New Statesman by Redfield & Wilton Strategies*.
Over half of Brits earning significantly more than the average household income consider themselves “about average” for UK households.
What is the average household income in the UK?
The median household income in the UK (after direct taxes have been deducted) was £31,400 in the financial year ending in 2021, according to the latest figure from the Office for National Statistics.
Yet our survey finds 50.4 per cent of those whose household net incomes are £40,001 and above consider their earnings “about average”. As many as 59 per cent of those with a household income of £80,001-£100,000 say they earn “about average”.
When asked whether they feel “normal”, “fortunate”, or “hard done by” when compared with the average UK citizen, 62 per cent of those with incomes in the range £60,001-£100,000 say “normal”. In fact, half of all those earning £40,001 and above – significantly more than the average household income – say they feel “normal”.
Similarly, those on below-average incomes also view themselves as “normal”: 61 per cent of people whose net income is below £20,001 chose “normal” rather than “fortunate” or “hard done by” when comparing themselves with the average citizen.
In general, members of the British public tend to compare their income negatively to what others earn. People are more likely to feel that they have a below-average income (36 per cent overall) than above-average (16 per cent), while 47 per cent feel they earn about average.
The polling suggests people are more likely to underestimate than to overestimate their incomes when comparing themselves with the average UK citizen. This finding chimes with previous polling by the New Statesman indicating that a quarter of Britons paid £100,000 or more still consider themselves “working class” (when salary is now considered the main indicator of class by a majority of Brits).
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Do you earn more or less than your friends?
If British people judge their income harshly compared with the rest of the country, they do so even more when comparing themselves with the family members and friends they see most often.
While 39 per cent of respondents think their social circle is, in general, better off than they are, only 11 per cent believe their friends and family to be worse off on the whole (50 per cent say “about the same”).
Even those on very high incomes have a tendency to feel less fortunate than close friends and family: 43 per cent of those with a household income of £100,001-£120,000 consider their social circle better off than they are, while virtually no one in that group considers it worse off (57 per cent say “about the same”).
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean people are jealous of those around them. A significant majority feel “normal” compared with their close friends and family (63 per cent), rather than “hard done by” (19 per cent) or “fortunate” (18 per cent).
We tend to be surrounded by people who are in a similar financial situation, and therefore consider ourselves “the norm” no matter what we earn, according to academics who are experts in this area. In fact, in each of our income brackets (apart from the very top, £120,000 and above), respondents were most likely to class themselves as “normal” in the context of their social circles rather than “hard done by” or “fortunate”. And 58.3 per cent of those on £40,001-£120,000 consider themselves “normal” compared with the average UK citizen.
Such an outlook warps our perceptions – particularly those of the rich – as discovered by Dr Katharina Hecht, a visiting fellow at the LSE’s International Inequalities Institute. From interviews with 30 UK-based top income earners (the “1 per cent”), she found that the majority did not see themselves as belonging to the “top” group in society.
The New Statesman’s latest findings “chime with my research – and are in line with ‘availability bias’, whereby people draw conclusions about society at large from their social circle”, says Hecht.
“Also, in research which asks people to place themselves on a ladder from one to ten, people tend to see themselves towards the middle of society – though those with higher education levels, for instance, do place themselves as higher on the ladder, on average, than people with lower levels of education,” she adds.
“People like to feel ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’. We would like to belong. We do not like to see ourselves as part of the ‘fringe’ of society.”
How do different demographics feel about their income?
Women are slightly more likely than men (40 per cent to 33 per cent) to say their household income is below average.
When it comes to political views, Liberal Democrat voters are more likely to think they have an above-average household income (24 per cent) than Labour (19 per cent) or Conservative voters (17 per cent). Lib Dem voters are also less likely than supporters of the main two parties to think their general social circle is better off than they are.
Younger people are more likely to think their general social circle is better off than they are, whereas older people are likely to view friends and family as having the same level of income. This discrepancy could be to do with generational wealth divides within families – parents and grandparents are more likely to own homes, for instance, so younger people may tend to see them as better off.
Our polling shows that those who live in rented accommodation are more likely to think their income is below average (45 per cent) than those who own their own property (30 per cent).
Renters are also more likely to say they feel “hard done by” compared with the average UK citizen than homeowners are (26 per cent vs 14 per cent), and also when comparing themselves with their close friends and family (25 per cent of renters vs 14 per cent of homeowners).
These results show how hard it is for politicians seeking public buy-in for taxing the wealthy. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, for example, recently refused to confirm to the New Statesman that he would follow through with his leadership election pledge to raise taxes on the top 5 per cent of earners.
However illogical it looks on paper, most British voters – even those far above the average income – consider themselves normal, and are more likely to feel worse off than the average citizen and people around them, than they are to feel better off. An understanding of this reality is vital to those campaigning to create a fairer society.
*A weighted sample of 2,000 eligible voters in Great Britain were surveyed on 15 June 2022.