1954 v 2004 No contest: we are cleaner, healthier and better off (but men still won't do the housework)

So you think you work harder and live in more polluted times than your grandparents? A major survey shows why we've never had it so good
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The Independent Online

Make do and mend is dead: long live the makeover. Whatever Prince Charles might have to say about the disastrous decline of traditional Britain, for most of us life has never been so good.

Make do and mend is dead: long live the makeover. Whatever Prince Charles might have to say about the disastrous decline of traditional Britain, for most of us life has never been so good.

A new survey published this week charts an astonishing spread of prosperity which has left the country with a wealth of time, money and sexual freedom that previous generations could only dream about. Even the air we breathe is cleaner.

The ICM poll defies the popular belief that things were better in the 1950s, an era with a golden reputation, by contrasting the smog-filled streets of half a century ago with today's world of almost limitless possessions.

While their counterparts in 1954 had to wear the same shirt for three days at a time, today, one-10th of Britons keep at least £500 worth of unused clothes lying idle in the wardrobe. Sixty per cent now throw a T-shirt in the wash after just one outing.

Not quite a third of us now bother to have a worn pair of shoes repaired, most preferring to buy new. We can afford it. In 2004 the average Briton can survive financially for seven months without working - seven times longer than in 1954.

The ICM survey retraced the steps of a pioneering Gallup poll, one of the earliest attempts to map the British lifestyle, at a time when spending power was only half what it is today. Workers coped with six-day weeks, clouds of factory pollution and average weekly wages of just £9 for men or £5 for women.

Many of those questioned now seemed unaware of progress in the intervening years. Nearly 80 per cent, for example, believed that air pollution has got worse since the 1950s, oblivious to the smogs that once killed thousands.

A majority believed we now work longer hours, even though Saturday working was the norm in 1954.

Public attitudes towards sexual morality have changed dramatically. Around two-thirds of us now think lone motherhood is acceptable, a view almost no one supported 50 years ago. Today, only 60 per cent believe in monogamy. Men claim to have had an average of 10 sexual partners. Women say they have had an average of five. In 1954 the question was not even asked.

Interest in formal religion is declining: 90 per cent of adults owned a Bible in 1954, a figure now at 65 per cent. Faith in the paranormal, though, is on the increase, with 42 per cent of us claiming to believe in ghosts, a 10 per cent rise over half a century. Other things remain depressingly familiar. Most marital rows concern money - now as then - and men continue to avoid the housework.

There is further evidence that the 1950s were not all they are claimed to be from historians who believe that the social revolution of the 1960s truly began at least a decade earlier.

This week Professor Joanna Bourke, an expert in 20th-century history at Birkbeck College, London, will tell The People's Poll programme on UKTV that 1954 is the effectively start of modern Britain. It was the year that saw the first TV news broadcast, the end of rationing and the launch of "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and his Comets.

"For the first time, the right of people to rise above their station starts to be discussed," Professor Bourke tells the programme, which commissioned the ICM survey.

"A huge number of things that we think are phenomena of the 1960s belong to the 1950s." She dates the birth of the British protest movement to the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests of 1954 and the subsequent rise of CND.

Many other changes blamed on the 1960s were already under way: despite formal disapproval of pre-marital sex, younger brides were often pregnant on their wedding day, she said.

Much of the best evidence of 20th-century living conditions comes from the Mass Observation exercises which ran from the 1930s to the early 1950s. Dorothy Sheridan, director of the Mass Observation archive at the University of Sussex, said the decade saw the birth of the British interest in lifestyle.

"Part of the interest in the Fifties is its part in the consumer boom and the development of design in the home after all the war-time austerity," said Ms Sheridan. "What we are witnessing today in terms of makeovers and DIY and the age of lifestyle very much has its roots in the Fifties.

"The Fifties enabled us through television to see visually how people lived. Up until then people could read magazines like Picture Post but you could say that television was a window into other people's lifestyles. Otherwise how would we know how other people lived?

"Technology and television embedded into our minds new imagined possibilities of how we might live."

The what-decade-are-you-in quiz


A dishwasher is:

a) a humble skivvy, employed in restaurants and kitchens

b) a labour-saving device into which you put dirty plates

c) a box into which someone else puts your dirty plates

A husband's rights are:

a) sexual intercourse, and a hot meal on the table

b) the right to smoke a cigarette while being harangued about the danger to your children's health

c) the right to be listened to by your spouse when banging on about employers, waiters and MPs, on the understanding that you'll pay all bills in return

How do you express your interest in beat music?

a) "this is hip to the groove, daddy-O..."

b) "mmm, they're cool ..."

c) "I find some of these new young bands like the Keane terrifically interesting"

Your absolutely favourite item of clothing is:

a) your Aldermaston donkey jacket, £2/13/6d from Millets

b) your black frock coat, £900 from Ozwald Boateng

c) your John Galliano pre-distressed faux-donkey jacket, £3,000 from Selfridges


Your daughter is in tears: her expensive jeans are ripped. Do you:

a) stay up till 1.45am darning the tear with toning thread?

b) throw them away and take her shopping at Harvey Nicks?

c) put a nasty rip in the other leg and tell her grunge is back?

The greatest personal fulfilment available to women is:

a) to have six lovely children and the recipe for the perfect rhubarb crumble

b) to win an Oscar

c) to host a chat show devoted to discussing crucial issues of female fulfilment

You show your concern for the environment by:

a) demanding the introduction of a Clean Air Act

b) buying a half-share in a wind farm in Cornwall

c) driving to work, but only through the really grotty bits of London, not the nice bits

The finest embodiment of Englishness is:

a) Joyce Grenfell

b) Jude Law

c) That girl in the Lynx ad who wakes up beside the guy she met in the supermarket

John Walsh

Answers: Mainly As: Gosh, you're old-fashioned. You could be living in the 1950s right now. You're idealistic, decent and oddly innocent. Heaven knows how you cope with modern life. Mainly Bs: You are ferociously modern, selfish, consumerist and predatory, with a keen eye for profit and glory. You get things done. Trouble is, no one likes you. Mainly Cs: You're a phenomenon - a modern Briton with the instincts of 50 or even 100 years ago, a wallflower at the dance of history like most of us.