11 December 2023

What are the secrets of success in modern Britain?

By Mike Clemence

How do we define success in the UK today? A generation ago, household appliances such as dishwashers and widescreen TVs might have been status symbols that showed we had made it, but today they are too commonplace to count for much.

A whole cottage industry of self-help books has sprung up, telling us how to achieve success, but it is a more elusive and subtler concept than those authors would want us to believe. 

In a new Ipsos report, we have used a wide range of tools – surveys, semiotics, social media analysis and online behaviour tracking to delve deeper into the topic. We find that the most popular indicators of success are not high achievement, renown, or expensive possessions – it is financial security. In the UK today, the basis of success is built on home ownership, savings that can be passed on to family and a good pension.

Who feels successful in the UK today?

But when it comes to who feels the most successful, we found another surprise. Those most likely to rate the success they have achieved in their lives a nine or ten out of ten are not individuals with high incomes or successful careers. Instead, it is those who do not possess any formal educational qualifications; 22% attributing themselves high success ratings, almost double the 13% we see among the broader UK population. The reason for this? Put simply, the older people are, the more likely they are to consider their lives to have been a success. In common with many other facets of UK life, age is a powerful predictor of self-satisfaction.

Older people are also more likely to be ‘satisficers’, happy with the extent of their achievements and not driven to achieve more. By contrast, younger people dominate in the ‘strivers’ category of those who are less satisfied with their situation and looking to push on to greater success. 

This split we see between ‘satisficers’ and ‘strivers’ also tells us about the UK’s approach to success overall. Just three in ten of the population want to work harder and achieve more, while half are content with where they have got to today. We are a comfortable country overall, and although it might sound unambitious, it has benefits for our national mood as the ‘satisficer’ group tend to feel happier, more fulfilled, and less anxious than ‘strivers’. 

The preponderance of satisficers is also a reminder of the diversity of approaches to success we see in our data. We can often fall into the trap of assuming that everyone is equally interested in reaching the top of the pile. Yet the relentless pursuit of advancement turns out to be a minority interest. For instance, just a quarter (24%) of the public agree that ‘fulfilment in life is achieving a prominent position in your career’.

What do we think is the secret of success?

Public views on the secret of success echo the meritocratic narrative that dominates in wider society: getting ahead is a product of hard work, education, and concern for others’ wellbeing, with family background playing at best a supporting role. Few see (or admit) that luck might be an important determinant of success. 

Additionally, there is significant resistance to the idea that family wealth plays a crucial role in achieving success, with almost half (46%) expressing that it is either not very important or not important at all.  

But the most important factor for success overall is treating other people well – seen as essential or very important by over eight in ten of the UK public. These findings depict a highly pro-social and meritocratic perspective of what it takes to get ahead: be kind to others, work hard and you will be rewarded. 

By common agreement, the least important factor is luck – just a fifth of people see it as an important factor to success in the UK today, despite a weight of academic research which places greater emphasis on serendipity. This speaks to the importance of a sense of control in our conceptions of success, which has significant implications for politicians, brands and government. Recognition that people want to feel they are in control of their destinies is fundamental. Those who feel more successful will see their actions as the reason for their advancement and will not welcome this being questioned. And while those who feel less successful want to improve their lot, they will want to feel they have done so through their own efforts, rather than the action of others or society. 

How is success distributed?

Our research has uncovered pronounced generational and geographical divides in what success is and how it is felt. 

Younger groups – especially students and those in Generation Z – are among the least likely to feel successful, although they do have the advantage of a longer life ahead to prove themselves. 

It should also come as no surprise that there is a powerful geography of success in the UK: Londoners and Southerners see fewer obstacles to making it than those in living the North – and the Northeast of England specifically. But our analysis shows this is more complex than the points of compass; your immediate environment and locale matters. The gap in how successful people think they can be is as large between those living in the most and least deprived areas (independent of geography) as it is between those in the southeast and northeast of England. It is the people, the infrastructure, and the jobs around us that help to determine how successful people feel they can be.

However, it is the north – and especially the ‘red wall’ areas of England – where geography and deprivation intersect. With an election upcoming, considering how these perceptions can be improved could be an important step for both Labour and Conservative parties as they seek to appeal to this electorate. 

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Mike Clemence is Engagement Manager at Ipsos Trends & Foresight.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.