The times they were a-changin’: Placing Britain’s longitudinal resources in historical context

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Opinion

The longitudinal studies brought together by CLOSER span more than a century of social and cultural change in Britain from before the First World War to the present. Quite a lot about Britain has barely changed in that period: most of its landscape, many of its buildings (including a fifth of its housing stock), and some of its rituals and customs. But everyday life has changed radically.

Inevitably, new technologies have played their part in this story: improving communications and mobility, transforming leisure, and helping dramatically to raise life expectancy (from 52 years in 1911 to 80 years in 2011). Rising living standards have been no less decisive. Before 1914 the average family spent half its income on food, today it spends 15 per cent. Then, obesity was only a problem for the rich, today it is widespread across society and associated strongly with poverty. In fact, living standards have doubled in real terms since the late 1950s, when Britons first began to debate the consequences of living in an ‘affluent society’.

At the same time, families have become smaller, though less significantly than one might imagine. In 1911 the average family had 2.8 children, today it is 1.8 (the great reduction in birth rates had begun much earlier – deep in the nineteenth century). In fact, the British birth-rate was at its lowest in the depression-hit 1930s, reminding us not only that social trends are not always one-way, but that common experiences can leave their mark across a generation. Women born in the 1930s would grow up to be the mothers of the post-war ‘baby-boomer’ generation, but they had been born into a very different climate. Only a minority of Britons experienced long-term unemployment in the 1930s, but insecurity loomed large in the lives of many. In a culture that was already coming to see small families as a defining feature of ‘respectability,’ the consequence was a dramatic reduction in marital fertility despite limited access to contraception and strong taboos around the open discussion of family limitation.

Fertility rates recovered after the Second World War and the age of first conception fell, but there was no return to the Victorian norm of large families. Instead, it became increasingly common for married women to return to the labour market, though even at the close of the century less than one in four mothers with dependent children was working full time. The female workforce has more than trebled in size since 1950, and for the first time approximately half of all employees are women. On the other hand, women remain conspicuously under-represented in many prestigious occupations, and over-represented in low-paid, temporary and part-time jobs.

Britain has also become a less homogeneously white, Anglo-Saxon society across the past century, though it is important to recognise both that as a global trading and imperial power its ports and cities had long played host to significant minority ethnic populations, and that even in the twenty-first century more than 85 per cent of Britons self-identify as ‘White British’.

In all these ways, and many others, Britain has experienced profound change since 1911. The children born into the successive cohort studies that make up the CLOSER programme had very different life chances. Those belonging to more recent cohorts have been progressively more likely to go to university, to reach old age, and to travel abroad, but they have not necessarily been more likely to have a job when they left full-time education. Some changes have been incremental and more or less unbroken, but others have been cyclical, shaped largely by the shifting fortunes of the British and global economy. Understanding the broad pattern of historical change can help us to ask the right questions of longitudinal sources, but the hope must be that, in turn, answering those questions will help us to refine our understanding of historical change itself.

Jon Lawrence, Reader in Modern British History at the University of Cambridge, is author of Speaking for the People (CUP, 1998) and Electing Our Masters (OUP, 2009). Recent publications include Structures and Transformations in Modern British History (CUP, 2011), a collection of essays edited with David Feldman, an essay with Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite on ‘Margaret Thatcher and the Decline of Class Politics’ in Making Thatcher’s Britain (CUP, 2012), and ‘Class, Paternalism and the British Path to Modernity’ (2011).