A nation both richer and more insecure The latest edition of Social Trends is published today. Bob Tyrrell and Tracy Rubenstein examine the changing face of Britain. Tables and text by Rosie Waterhouse

Click to follow
The Independent Online
If Gray's Anatomy is the bible of medical science, Social Trends has become the sacred text of its more sociologically inclined followers. Both publications attempt, in their own ways, to measure and explain systems of almost infinite complexity: one a biological system, the other social. But while the human body stays the same, evolving only over millions of years, the body of society is in a state of perpetual flux, driven by its own dynamic.

Since its inception in 1970, Social Trends has sought to track these dynamics, to chart the changing patterns of life: our family structures, money, jobs, leisure and interests. But what do these facts and figures mean? Does Social Trends paint a pictureof a nation at ease with itself, resplendent in the material gifts showered upon it, comfortable with the gains conferred by those changes? Or has our personal security and the quality of our life been sacrificed at the altar of these advances? In fact,both appear to be true. For while we in modern Britain enjoy a standard of living never dreamt of a century ago, we also appear to be in the grip of confusion, self-doubt and a pervading sense of risk.

But first the good news. The 1995 edition of Social Trends demonstrates that household disposable income has increased in real terms by more than a third over the past 30 years. As a result, our homes have mutated from being functional shells to multi-faceted activity centres, equipped with all the trappings of our technologically advanced society. It also reveals that more than 70 per cent of households own a television, video recorder, washing machine and fridge freezer, and that 40 per cent of children between the ages of five and 15 have a television set in their bedroom. And while Bob Hoskins reminds us that "it's good to talk", it is equally worth reminding ourselves that only four in 10 households had a telephone 30 years ago.

Social Trends also demonstrates the progress we have made in educational standards. While a mere 20 per cent of children under the age of five attended school in 1971, more than half now benefit from early education. Class sizes have fallen, together with the number of school-leavers with no educational qualifications.

Our leisure activities have become more varied, our holidays more frequent and our tastes more diverse. In 1993, 23 million holidays abroad were taken by British residents - more than three times as many as in 1971. We are far more likely to go to the cinema, the opera, the theatre, to listen to classical music, and to visit museums, galleries and historic monuments. The home is also the venue for increasingly varied forms of leisure: from exercising to computer games.

Evidence points to a more liberated society, less bound to the traditional stereotypes of age, class and gender. The huge growth in women's participation in the labour force (currently standing at nearly 53 per cent) is well-rehearsed, as is their slow climb to more powerful and better paid positions in the workforce. Retirement is seen less as the first step on the path to dependency and more as a well-earned opportunity to enjoy the fruits of our labour. Class has slowly become less of a shackle around the feet of our more socially mobile citizens.

But as we bask in the warm glow afforded by these benefits, there is an equally important story to be told about the state of our nation. A rather less appealing interpretation of Social Trends can be gleaned. Have these changes progressed so far and so fast that people are left confused, even bewildered? Much has recently been made about the death of the middle- class dream and the shattering of its aspirations. No longer the secure citizen and contented consumer, confident about their financial prospects and those of their children, more the anxious inhabitant of a world where nothing can now be taken for granted. These fears and insecurities can be found in the pages of Social Trends. They span the economy, the family and the individual.

Economic insecurities are well described. Even though household income has risen, the experience of unemployment has affected many millions, and the long-term unemployed now account for 45 per cent of all unemployed people, compared with 28 per cent in 1991. The number of males working part time has almost doubled in the past decade, the most common reason cited being the inability to find a full-time job. The numbers of those working on fixed-term contracts has risen dramatically, as caree rs become less a "job for life". And if these insecure jobs are forced options - as the figures suggest - there is little reason to believe that others are immune to those changes. In other words, "It could happen to me".

Social insecurities are inevitably harder to pin down. However, they are certainly apparent in the rising level of crime and the attendant fear which now accompanies it. The statistics in the 1995 edition show that the number of notifiable offences recorded by the police in England and Wales has risen more than two-and-a-half times since 1971. Perceptions of crime are at least as important as the rate itself as fear of crime blights the quality of our daily life. When asked in 1981 in the Henley Centre's annual "Planning for Social Change" survey, "Would you be afraid to open your door to strangers at night?", 35 per cent agreed. By 1993, this had risen to nearly 70 per cent.

Social anxiety also extends to our traditional national bodies. The apathy is palpable. We have become disillusioned with and disengaged from national institutions. The inexorable decline in church membership and religious attendance is well-known, but confidence in all institutions (except the police and the armed forces) has also been seriously eroded. Instead, our concerns seem to have transferred from national debate to angry skirmishes around single issues: the cattle protesters being a timely exam ple. Are these economic and social anxieties isolated fragments or do they combine with a deeper instinct that even the positive side of the balance sheet fails to carry the weight it deserves?

In reflecting on the state of the nation, Social Trends deliberately eschews an attempt to draw a further conclusion. Perhaps the image that forms, as we consider its facts and figures, is of a nation of individuals lacking a unifying context, lacking - in the words of Howard Gardner - a story. The 1995 edition shows how far we have succeeded in detaching ourselves from the dead-weight of so many of our traditions and our inhibiting sense of deference. It also shows that our daily lives are clearly being lived in the contemporary world, and the insecurities that will be so much a part of tomorrow. But perhaps it also reveals that our sentiments as a nation and sense of identity as individuals are still firmly rooted in our memories.

Bob Tyrrell is chief executive and Tracy Rubenstein a senior analyst at the Henley Centre.

`Social Trends 1995' is published the Central Statistical Office, £34.95.

The way we live Less money is spent on food, clothing and footwear as a proportion of household expenditure, while spending on televisions and videos has increased sharply since 1971.

In 1991, 90 per cent of households had a telephone as against 42 per cent in 1972.

£1 in 1971 money was worth just 14p in 1993.

More than half of our under-fives attend school compared with only a fifth in 1971. A snapshot of literacy problems among 21-year-olds in 1992 showed 24 per cent had difficulties interpreting a video recorder instruction manual.

We take three times the number of holidays abroad than 25 years ago; those taken in Britain have slightly declined. In 1971 Spain was the most popular destination; now it is France.

More boys experimented with smoking at an earlier age than girls. But by 16, 70 per cent of girls have tried smoking compared with 64 per cent of boys.

Almost 50 per cent of boys aged 11-15 had an alcoholic drink within a week of being asked, compared with 40 per cent of girls.

Marriages and divorces The traditional nuclear family of a married couple with two children has been in slow decline since the early Seventies. More couples are divorcing and fewer are marrying. The number of divorces has more than doubled since 1971, togive us the highest rate in the EU - almost twice the average. For every two marriages in Britain in 1992 there was one divorce; almost 25 per cent of children experience divorce by the age of 16.

The number of births outside marriage has soared from less than one in 10 in 1971 to about one in three in 1993. There are big regional differences. The highest rate is in Merseyside (42 per cent of all births), Surrey has the lowest (20 per cent). The proportion of single mothers has risen rapidly since 1987. Almost one in five mothers with dependent children was a single mother in 1992.

People are getting married later and women are postponing having children, and are having fewer children than 25 years ago. The average age for giving birth in 1993 was 28, the highest since 1955. Married women had fewer abortions in 1993 than 1971, but the number for single women nearly doubled.

Most births outside marriage occur within stable relationships. Three-quarters were registered by both parents in 1993, compared with more than half by the mother only in 1971.

More people are choosing a solitary lifestyle - one-person households now account for 25 per cent of the total.

Membership of environmental groups Growing public concern about the environment is demonstrated in a striking increase in the membership of green campaign groups. Membership of the National Trust has soared from 278,000 in 1971 to almost 2.2 million in 1993, and membership of Greenpeace has increased from 30,000 in 1981 to 410,000.

A Department of the Environment survey on public attitudes to the environment in 1993 suggested that 85 per cent of adults in England and Wales were either "quite concerned" or "very concerned". The two issues of greatest concern were chemicals in riversand the sea and the disposal and import of toxic waste. There is also rising anxiety about traffic exhaust fumes and urban smog.

Fears about the depletion of the ozone layer has led to the replacement of CFCs in aerosols by other, less harmful gases. Sales of CFCs in the EU in 1993 amounted to less than two-fifths of those in 1976.

Recycling is another issue of the Nineties - in 1992 the amount of paper and board recycled and waste paper used in newsprint was equivalent to about a third of consumption during the year; for glass it was around a quarter.

The average UK resident uses about half the energy consumed by a Luxembourg resident but nearly three times more than that used by a resident of Spain.

With regard to water quality, concentrations of lead and other heavy metal pollutants, including zinc and copper, are declining.

Changes in food consumption The average British diet is healthier than in 1971, with people consuming more low-fat breakfast cereals and poultry and less sugar, eggs, beef and veal. We also eat a little more fruit.

On the other hand, the consumption of convenience food has grown steadily. One explanation may be the increase in the number of single-person households.

Our average life span is increasing by an average of two years every decade. According to projected mortality rates for 1996, a boy born in that year can expect to live until he is 74, but a girl until she is 79. This compares with a male life expectancyof 67.8 years and a female life expectancy of 73.6 years in 1961.

Just over half of men and just over two-fifths of women were overweight or obese in 1991 to 1992. The death rates from lung cancer among males fell by almost half between 1971 and 1992, while the rate for females increased by one sixth. Suicide is three times more common among men than women.

The number of new Aids cases each year has increased steadily between 1984 and 1993. Most cases result from homosexual exposure, a rising proportion through heterosexual exposure; and a smaller number from intravenous drug use. Britain has reported the fourth lowest number of new Aids cases in the EU, with just under three per 100,000 population: Spain has the most with more than 14 cases per 100,000.

Comments