1971 v today: Britons are richer and live longer - but feel less healthy

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The Independent Online

The year of 1971 saw the arrival of decimal coinage, the departure of Jim Morrison and a top 20 hit for Tony Christie with "(Is This The Way to) Amarillo?"

The year of 1971 saw the arrival of decimal coinage, the departure of Jim Morrison and a top 20 hit for Tony Christie with "(Is This The Way to) Amarillo?"

As Christie enjoyed the No.1 one slot with the same song this week, a snapshot of modern life showed just how much the rest of life has changed since he first sang the song. The Social Trends report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) highlights the changes in the way we lived - and loved - 34 years ago, and questions whether things have indeed got better.

While life expectancy has increased, the number of years in which people can expect to live in poor health has also grown, the report says. Infant mortality has fallen, but childhood obesity and asthma rates have risen dramatically.

While the ownership of consumer goods such as cars, telephones and televisions has soared, the gap between the richest and poorest in society has become ever greater.

The Social Trends report was begun in 1970 as researchers, economists and politicians realised that the rapid improvements in public wealth and the changes in the way people lived needed to be measured and seen in the context of social benefits.

When the first edition appeared, it attracted enormous publicity and made it on to the recommended book lists of national papers such as the Financial Times. Yesterday's edition, the 35th, showed Britain is getting richer, but older.

The average age of Britons is 38.4 years, compared with 34.1 in 1971. While life expectancy for men has increased in the past 30 years, from 69.1 years to 75.7, increased longevity comes at a price. Men will now spend an average of eight years of their life in poor health, compared with five in 1971.

Women in 1971 could expect to live for 75.3 years and spend 66 of them in good health - now they have a life expectancy of 80.4 years, but only 68 of them will be spent without illness or disability.

The statistics also reveal the seismic social changes that have occurred in the past three decades. In 1971, only a third of 25-year-old women did not have children. By 2001, two-thirds of 25-year-olds were childless, reflecting the falling marriage rate and rising age at which people begin their families.

Nearly a third of people live in single-person households, compared with less than one in five three decades ago.

The huge rise in ownership of what were once deemed luxury goods is also highlighted in the report. In 1971, only 35 per cent of people owned a landline telephone - now 93 per cent do. The first call using a mobile phone was made in 1973 so ownership in 1971 was not even a possibility - now 70 per cent of households have at least one.

Three-quarters of households now have a car, compared with 52 per cent in 1971.

But the demographics also show how society has not necessarily changed for the better. In 1911, the wealthiest one per cent of the population owned 70 per cent of the country's wealth.

That figure fell consistently through the 20th century, to 23 per cent in 1971 and reaching a record low of 17 per cent in the late 1980s, but it has widened again. In 2002, the wealthiest 1 per cent owned 23 per cent of the country's total wealth, compared with 22 per cent when Labour came to power in 1997.

In 1971, says the report, 15 per cent of people lived on incomes below 60 per cent of average income - the current Government's definition of poverty. In 2001, 17 per cent of people were still living in poverty.

Donald Hirsch, a special adviser to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the social research charity, said the report showed how much needed to be done to address the widening gulf between rich and poor in Britain today. He said: "Clearly there is an issue about the fact that, in much of the period since the 1970s, there has been growth in income and expenditure which has not been accorded to people in the poorest sections of society.

"The gap between the richest and the poorest has become wider, and that, in effect, makes people more deprived.

"The telephone is a good example. Being able to function without a phone now is much harder than it would have been in 1971 because so many more people have them. "It is about what really constitutes hardship. He added: "To raise the people in the worst cases of relative poverty up to the level of other people does not mean that you have to steal from the rich to give to the poor." Redistributing just one-twentieth of the annual economic growth rate would go a "huge way" to raising people out of poverty, he said.

Many of the trends that are regarded as reflecting an improvement in our lives have been accompanied by a linked decline in health. In 1971, there were 313 billion passenger kilometres of travel by car and van - by 2003, that had risen to 678 billion kilometres. In 2003, Britons travelled a total of 794 billion kilometres within the country - a 90 per increase on 1971. But rates of asthma among children have increased sixfold and obesity rates have tripled.

And, while housing has become less overcrowded, there has been a dramatic impact on the amount of unspoilt land. In 1971, more than 40,000 hectares of new conifer woodland were created; last year, that fell to less than 5,000.


  • Twenty-four per cent of people in 1971 reported having a long-standing illness that limited what they could do; now it is 31 per cent.
  • Infant mortality (death of a child before its first birthday) was 17 per 1,000 live births in 1971; that has fallen to 5 per 1,000 now.
  • In 1971, 45 per cent over 16 years smoked; now just 26 per cent do so.
  • The suicide rate among men aged 25-44 has doubled, from 12 per 100,000 to 23 per 100,000.
  • One in five GP consultations took place in the patient's own home in 1971; now, only one in 25receive a home visit.
  • In 1980, 7 per cent of adults were obese; that is now 23 per cent.
  • Asthma rates among children have increased sixfold in the past 25 years (the earliest time from which national figures are available); by 2003, new diagnoses had risen to 66 per 100,000 among boys aged one to four, and 42 per 100,000 among girls of the same age.


  • A pint of milk cost 6p in 1971 - now it is 37p on average. A packet of cigarettes has gone up from 27p to £4.25.
  • In 1971, consumption of beef and veal stood at 189g per person per week; now we eat 118g.
  • There were 9.6 million owner-occupied dwellings in 1971; now there are 18.1 million.
  • In 1971, 7 per cent of dwellings were felt to be below minimum standards - compared with 2 per cent now.
  • Three-quarters of households have at least one car, compared with 52 per cent in 1971, while the proportion of people with no car has fallen from 48 per cent to 26 per cent.
  • The bill for social security expenditure has risen from £56bn in 1971 to £120bn.
  • Two-thirds of children aged three to four attend school; 20 per cent did so in 1971.
  • There were two billion passenger kms of air travel in 1971 - now that has soared to nine billion.
  • In 1971, Spain was the top holiday choice, attracting 34 per cent of people; it still is, with 30 per cent going there.


  • Since 1971, the population has increased by 3.6 million to 59.6 million.
  • There were 480,000 marriages and 100,000 divorces in 1971; compared with 306,000 marriages and 167,000 divorces last year.
  • In 1971, the death rate among men aged 55 to 64 was 20.4 per 1,000; by 2003, it was 9.9 per 1,000.
  • The proportion of over-65s has risen by a quarter since 1971, to 16 per pent of the population.
  • In 1971, 15 per cent of children born outside marriage were adopted; today it has fallen to 4 per cent.
  • The average age at first marriage was 25 for men, 23 for women, in 1971 - now it is 31 for men and 29 for women.
  • The average age of a mother at childbirth was 26.2 years in 1971; now it is 29.4 years.
  • Eight per cent of children lived in one-parent families in 1971 - now 24 per cent do.
  • In 1971, 18 per cent of adults lived in one-person households; 29 per cent live alone today.
  • Now, 14 per cent of householdscomprise a single person under state pension age living alone, compared with 6 per cent in 1971.

'It is a myth to say life is better than before'

Peter Cutts, 54, is an actor and lives in west Hampstead with his wife.

He says: "I was a student in the early 1970s and moved into my first rented flat in 1973 with my the girlfriend, now wife.

"We had no central heating, no washing machine, no fridge, no television or telephone.

"We got a television in about 1976 and bought a washing machine and things like that when children came along around the same time.

"My mother had a telephone but she had a party line that she shared with other people; if someone wanted to come round to use it, she would shut them in the bedroom for some privacy. That seems strange now, given the way people will air all their dirty laundry while walking round the shops talking on a mobile phone.

"I got married when I was 24 and was 29 when we had our first child.

"Everything costs so much more now. In 1971, I got a grant of £9 a week as a student; my rent was £4 a week and I had to pay for absolutely everything else out of the rest - that seems incredible now.

"In a way, it is a sort of myth to say life is better now, we adapt to lifestyles and grow with the changes but it seems like we need more money and things now just to get the same standard of living."

'I'm really grateful for what I've got today'

Owen Cutts, 22, the son of Peter, is a painter and decorator and lives in Hendon, north London. He says: "I left school after my A-levels but stayed living at home until last August, when I moved in with a load of mates.

"There are six of us and we've each got a television in our rooms, plus a big shared one with Sky.

"There are about three DVD players, four video machines, two games consoles and computers and stereo systems, plus we all have mobiles.

"Dad was really against getting a video when we were growing up and we were the last people to get one - I was about 12.

"We got a computer when I was 10. I can't imagine not having things like that.

"None of my friends are married. A few have got children but they weren't really planned.

"I go to the pub quite a lot during the week, and we get quite a lot of takeaways. I don't like cooking so I get ready meals or things like chicken dippers and oven fries. I am very grateful for what I've got as I know it's a hundred times better than what my dad had.

"His family were really poor - when he was at school and in a band playing drums, he couldn't afford drumsticks so he used knitting needles."