Report on Hungarian Society: Portugal on the horizon, Austria still far away

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At a press conference on Tuesday researchers working for the Hungarian social research institute TÁRKI presented the latest edition of Report on Society, their biannual publication summarising the most important social indicators and social trends of Hungary. The collection includes 22 studies delving deep into questions of social mobility, integration and disintegration, examining the pitfalls of Hungary's education system, taking a look at the secluded elite and the closure of society.

Future Shock

István György Tóth, one of the editors of the publication remarked in an interview conducted by 444.hu that the political elite started to underestimate the importance of education. He said there is a trend in Hungarian education policy that encourages children to specialise as soon as possible, favoring vocational training over lifelong learning. As Mr. Tóth elaborates, this attitude submits education to the day-to-day needs of the job market, and it goes against the tough demands set by the current pace of technological progress. Vocational knowledge turns obsolete fast, and this phenomenon requires people to possess a flexible set of skills to remain competitive. The current approach of the political elite - discouraging flexibility, innovation, curiosity - is running a high risk of the country falling into a negative spiral that might create a social division with one distinct part of society that will be able to compete in a globalised economy and another one that falls behind and becomes an easy target for political manipulation due to their growing frustrations.

Judit Lannert's study titled "No country for children - Hungarian education and 21st-century challenges" reveals that the most important indicators place the Hungarian education system amongst the weakest in Europe. Public education is burdened by overstuffed curriculums and improper pedagogical methods, creating a lack of motivation in pupils and amplifying the handicap of disadvantaged students. The most recent PISA tests show a decrease in mathematical performance and a steep fall in the students' trust in their ability to efficiently tackle problems and show that Hungarian students rank last in Europe in digital literacy despite the country's relatively high rate of internet penetration and time spent browsing the internet. The study concludes that the Hungarian society is in a state of "future shock", referring to the term coined by futurologist Alvin Toffler.

Austria is far away, but catching up to Portugal in ten years seems possible

Reaching the Western-European standard of living is a long-standing goal of the Hungarian society. Péter Szívós's study titled "Is Europe far away?" compared Hungary's most important social and economic indicators to those of Western and Eastern European countries, Austria and Portugal, and Poland and Romania respectively.

The study found that Eastern European countries had a more dynamic development in terms of per capita gross national income than their Western counterparts, but Hungary's development is the least dynamic within its group. Hungary's 48% higher education enrollment rate may seem like a huge leap from the 15% it was at the time of the regime change of '89-'90, but it doesn't look so good when compared to the 68% it was in 2007. The current figure matches Romania's enrollment rate but pales in comparison to Austria's 83%.

The 2016 data for life expectancy at birth shows improvement in all examined countries, but the earlier differences remained the same. The current figure in Hungary is 76 years, while those born in neighbouring Austria are expected to live 81 years.

The indicators show that Austria still preserves its advantage, but the other countries featured in the study are slowly catching up. The difference between Hungary and Portugal is diminishing at a faster rate, which means Hungary could reach the level of the less developed Western European countries within the next ten years, though Hungary is ranking lower amongst the post-socialist countries than before.

Social Divide

Another study from the book, "Closure and fluidity in the Hungarian social structure" shows how hard it is to get into the upper-middle class, the top 10-20% of Hungarian society. The social differences are not as big in Hungary as they are for instance in the United States, but social mobility is very low, explained Iván Szelényi, an author of the study. In European terms, income disparity is generally low, but this value is exceedingly high within groups affected by severe material deprivation. The top 10% of society is completely secluded from the rest. Entry into that elite is becoming increasingly difficult, but due to its highly self-reproductive nature it is a status that is difficult to lose.

Mr. Szelényi added that a wealth of HUF 70 million (EUR 220,000) already places one in the top 5% - a sum equivalent to the value of a moderately nice flat in one of the more expensive neighbourhoods of Budapest.

The study of Márton Medgyesi and Zsolt Boda examines the public trust placed in institutions, an important topic due to the effect of this trust on the ratio of norm following behaviours. In recent years, Hungary has been experiencing changes in this trust, especially in political institutions. Even if trust in public institutions in general was mostly on the rise during the past ten years - even during the financial crisis in the 2007-2011 period - the trust in political institutions shows a different pattern. After the political turmoils of 2006, there was a general erosion of trust in politics, but a shift occurred in 2010: since then, those with right-wing political convictions seem to increasingly trust political institutions, while the declining trend is continuing on the left. It seems that the trust in political institutions became strongly dependent on the political sentiments of the individuals and the coloration of the current government.

(Cover: Alexander Klein / AFP)

This article is a slightly altered version of the original article published in Hungarian.

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