Everyone’s talking about other people’s pay

Suddenly a slew of articles have started talking about attitudes to pay inequality in the UK. I’ll write my own thoughts on this in the coming months, but for the moment I thought I’d just flag a few of the most interesting developments:

  • A ‘High Pay Commission‘ has been launched by the left-wing (but not strictly party-political…) pressure group Compass. It has a year to figure out how to ‘mitigate or reduce the growing rates of high pay’ in the private sector. To get some press attention, the Commission started with some polling showing that people underestimate high pay, and we don’t think that people deserve levels of pay this high…
  • There’s no need for the Commission to deal with public sector pay, because the Government is already looking into it!  Will Hutton – the stockbroker turned journalist/public intellectual (and in fact, currently governor of my own university…) – is currently looking at all levels of public sector pay. Unfortunately the call for evidence is already closed, but you can get a preview of Will Hutton’s thinking here.

“The survey of 1,000 people found that most believed the prime minister, secondary school head teachers and train drivers should be paid less. On the other hand, they believed care assistants and call centre workers should get more.”

This is the kind of result we should be coming to expect.  If we look at John Hills’ Inequality and the State, ch4 – still my bible for anything inequality-related in the UK – then we find the same thing from 1999, this time drawn from the more robust ‘British Social Attitudes’ series (click on the table to expand it):

Pay perceptions from Hills 2004

(Brendan also shows that US citizens similarly would prefer a more equal society).

  • Finally, I loved a recent article in the Guardian simply because it featured people talking about what they earn (scroll down below the main article for these features and photos). As Oliver Burkeman pithily says, “Sex and death haven’t really been taboo for decades – there are people who won’t stop talking about either – but I’ve never been at a party or at drinks in a pub where salaries were openly compared.” Which is why this article was very refreshing.

If you’re feeling particularly committed to transparency about earnings, then try talking to your friends and colleagues about your pay (or indeed posting it below!).  John Hills is brave enough to do this – he announced in a public seminar a few years ago that he earned just under £80,000 (if I remember correctly), which was noteworthy because I’ve never seen anyone say this publicly before. I’d love to do the same, but I do so many small odds-and-ends on top of my £14,000 student bursary that I can honestly say I have no idea what I earn annually… Or maybe this is just my excuse for my typical (and unwelcome) British reticence.

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where I write articles and short blog posts. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on disability, the workplace, inequality, deservingness and the future of the benefits system, and the relationship between evidence and policy. You can find out more about me at http://www.benbgeiger.co.uk
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4 Responses to Everyone’s talking about other people’s pay

  1. Jack Cunliffe says:

    Interesting chat Ben. I agree that people should say what they earn – I always do. even when it precipitates me having to buy the round…

    I like the way the civil service does it – you may not know exactly what you’re colleagues earn, but one knows their grade and therefore the range that they get paid in, max and min. This, at least, should become common practice for all organisations.

    p.s. as temporary promotion to G7 at the MoJ, I get just under £41k a year. a substantive G7 gets between £52k and £60k dependent on how far up the scale they have managed to get.

  2. Graeme Kemp says:


    I’ll have to actually read John hill’s book now – see if he’s worth it!

  3. Charlotte Cavaille says:

    Thanks Ben!

    I find Britain’s recent interest in inequality really interesting! Do you have any bibliographical references post-Hills’ Inequality and the State on the causes and consequences of income inequality in the UK (“a la” Polarized America for instance, i.e. that go beyond a description of changes in income inequality and investigate the politics behind it)?

  4. Ben Baumberg says:

    I don’t know of anything that looks at the politics in quite the same way as Hacker and Pierson, but there’s lots out there that’s relevant. On the one hand, you have work by the Institute of Fiscal Studies that decomposes the trends in inequality into various sources. (There’s also Mark Williams’ work that will hopefully come out in the next year or two). If you want to read more on the politics of inequality under New Labour in the last few years, then John Hills’ co-edited book with Kitty Stewart and Tom Sefton is great: Towards A More Equal Society? He also summarised parts of this in a short article in the Guardian.

    While the TAMES book is great, I think it misses a couple of things, as I argued in an earlier post on the site. And there’s clearly much more we can do this. Let me know if you have any ideas!

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