The results of the Eurobarometer conducted between May 2022 and June 2022 reveals that Europeans’ perceptions of equality of opportunity changed significantly in recent years. In particular, in the EU as a whole, the percentage of those who agree that they have equal opportunities for getting ahead in life decreasedfrom 57% in 2017 to 47% in 2022.

Equality of opportunity is based on the idea that everyone has an equal chance to do well in life (i.e. in education, the job market), regardless of inherited circumstances beyond their control – such as gender, the place of birth, the financial situation and the educational level of one’s parents, etc. We have equality of opportunity in a society if those who make the same effort achieve similar results regardless of their social background.

According to Eurobarometer data, there is considerable variation between member states in the percentage of respondents who agree or strongly agree that in their country they have equal opportunities for getting ahead in life, like everyone else. There are 13 countries where at least half of the respondents agree. The percentage reaches 69% in Finland, 66% in Luxembourg, and 65% in Sweden. In other countries this percentage is much lower: in Croatia it is 23%, in Cyprus 21%, while in Greece it is the lowest in the EU (14%).

Despite national differences, in almost all EU countries agreement that there are equal opportunities has overwhelmingly decreased compared to 2017. (Romania is the only country where agreement has increased modestly between 2017 and 2022 by 6 %.)

In some countries the drop was dramatic. In the Netherlands the percentage decreased by 36 percentage points, in Malta and Ireland by 20. In seven member states the decrease exceeded ten percentage points. In Greece in 2017 only 18% of citizens agreed that they have equal opportunities for getting ahead in life. In 2022 (as mentioned above) this percentage had dropped to 14%.

Why have perceptions of equality of opportunity changed so dramatically in the last five years? Europe has been hit by crises which significantly eroded living standards. Despite the unprecedented fiscal support provided by governments, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis was not the same for all households. OECD research argues that certain social groups, such as women and minorities, experienced a larger drop in well-being than others. School closures and the switch to online learning, saved two academic years but had a stronger negative impact on disadvantaged students who had fewer resources and capabilities for learning at home. Low-skilled workers were most hit by the COVID crisis as they were often unable to work remotely and were more exposed to job risks.

The unequal impact of the pandemic affects respondents’ perceptions of equality opportunity. Respondents whose working conditions improved are more likely to say they have equal opportunities for getting ahead in life (57%). Conversely, only 41% of the respondents who were made redundant or lost their jobs and 40% of the respondents who received a reduced income were likely to agree that they have equal opportunities like everyone else in their country.

Finally, according to a related analysis, the drop in perceptions of equality of opportunity was largest for individuals in education (-18 pp) and those aged 15-24 (-16 pp). It should be noted that young people were more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic, as they are over-represented in the industries that were severely affected (e.g. retail sales, customer service, etc.), and they are still facing increased difficulties  entering the labour market.

Equality of opportunity is not only a matter of social justice, but a necessary condition for social cohesion and economic development. According to the OECD, at the individual level, inequality of opportunity limits people’s ability to fulfill their aspirations, affecting their mental health and the quality of their work. At the collective level, inequality of opportunity discourages human capital accumulation, distorts the distribution of talent, and hinders sustainable and inclusive growth. Political leaders should make a great effort to design fair transition policies, and communicate that “no one is left behind”, especially in this period of labour market end economic restructuring due to digitalisation and the green transformation.