Future of Inequality

Throughout the postwar period (i.e., 1950s-1980s), the stories that we typically told ourselves about the future of inequality were benign and optimistic, the presumption being that history operated in the main to reduce inequality, if only gradually and fitfully. This orientation led to narratives describing the gradual emergence of a world in which inequalities were less profound, opportunities more equally distributed, and class conflicts and interclass differences attenuated.

These narratives were benign in the sense that they rested on a happy correspondence between what should be and what will be. If there is any theme to contemporary analyses of the future of inequality, it is that the benign narrative has fallen largely out of fashion. Instead, contemporary scholars now typically pose questions about the rise of new inequalities or the persistence and even intensification of old ones, the result being a more starkly pessimistic understanding of the future.

Rise of new inequalities

Are new technologies (e.g., internet, mobile phones, medical advances) generating new inequalities in access to information, goods, and services? Are new institutional forms emerging (e.g., mass prisons) that create new inequalities in life chances?

Persistence of inequality

Will the ongoing takeoff in income inequality continue to play out over the near and long term? Why have some forms of inequality persisted despite decades of egalitarian reform (e.g., antidiscrimination law, affirmative action)? Will the occupational structure remain "hypersegregated" by gender, poverty rates remain strikingly high, and racial gaps in income remain large? Why have spectacular reductions in some forms of inequality (e.g., gender pay gap) been achieved?

"When the rich wage war it is the poor who die." - Jean-Paul Sartre

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