How and why Britain’s attitudes and values are changing
In a period of extended recession, and with the coalition government having embarked on a severe programme of cuts to public services, we ask how the British public is reacting. Are people looking to the state to protect public services and social welfare, or are they turning away from government being the answer? With nearly three decades of data covering three recessions and five prime ministers, British Social Attitudes is uniquely placed to answer these questions.
Compared with 30 years ago, Britain takes a far more laissez-faire view of other people’s relationships and lifestyles, but this does not mean differences of opinion have vanished.
In 1983 17% thought homosexuality was “not wrong at all”, falling to 11% by 1987, a time of great concern about HIV AIDS. Now 47% think it's not wrong at all, while 22% think it is “always wrong”, compared with 50% in 1983.
Generally speaking, the last 30 years have not seen a shift to a less collectivist Britain. However, people’s attitudes towards social welfare for disadvantaged groups in society have hardened overall.
In 1985 81% thought it was the government’s responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed. Now only 59% think this. Much of this change occurred when Labour was in power.
A number of important British institutions have fallen in the public’s estimation over the last 30 years, including the press, banks and politicians.
Now only one in five (18%) trusts governments to put the nation’s needs above those of a political party, down from 38% in 1986.
Britain then - and now
Back in March 1983, when interviewing for the first British Social Attitudes survey began, Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party was nearing the end of its first term in office. A few months later it enjoyed its second election victory, winning 44 per cent of the vote and all but wiping out Michael Foot's Labour Party as an electoral force in the south of England. The Conservatives won despite the fact that over three million were unemployed during the early 1980s, an unemployment rate of over 10 per cent. The digital world was still in its infancy: Sinclair's ZX Spectrum was the top-selling home computer while 1983 saw the launch of both the Compact Disc and the first commercially available handheld mobile phone, weighing almost 800 grams and costing over £2,000. Rather than being a globalised world, the Berlin Wall still divided East from Western Europe, while Ronald Reagan's tenure as President of the United States did not seem destined to reduce Cold War tensions.
There are some similarities between today's Britain and the Britain we first surveyed back in 1983. The global financial crisis of 2008 and the recession that followed have seen unemployment increase once again, although not to the levels of the early 1980s. At the time of writing, unemployment stands at 7.8 per cent of the economically active population, or 2.51 million people (Office for National Statistics, 2013). But in many other respects - whether demographically, politically, economically or socially - Britain has clearly changed a great deal over the last 30 years. The UK population has not only grown (standing at over 63 million according to the 2011 Census, up from just over 56 million in 1983) but also become more diverse. Since 1991, the population with a non-white ethnic background has more than doubled, from three to seven million, and now accounts for 14 per cent of the UK population (Jivraj, 2012).
The structure of the job market has changed, with increases in the proportions of professional, managerial and non-routine 'service' occupations and a decline in routine administrative and non-routine manual jobs (Holmes and Mayhew, 2012). Women now form about 45 per cent of the workforce, up from 38 per cent in 1971. Our family lives have changed markedly too; cohabitation has increased considerably, as has the proportion of children born outside marriage. As in 1983, the Labour Party is in opposition, this time following three terms in office between 1997 and 2010, but today's party is much altered from its 1980s incarnation, having moved closer to the political central ground. Finally, a digital revolution has meant that, in little more than a generation, worldwide communication has become an everyday and instant occurrence, with access to the internet now considered almost a fourth utility.
This report and its data
This report investigates whether there have been similarly widespread changes in public attitudes since the early 1980s. Have people changed their views about how much help government should give to pensioners or the unemployed? Are certain forms of sexual behaviour seen as more acceptable now than three decades ago? What has happened to public trust in government and other institutions? The report covers a wide range of topics, and here we highlight some of the key themes that emerge, teasing out the different factors that underpin changing attitudes. We focus on four subjects in particular: identities; personal relationships; public spending; and trust, politics and institutions. Where possible we also draw out what this means in terms of current policy debates, and read the runes as to how attitudes might shift over the next few decades.
We can only do this by having access to robust and repeated measures of people's attitudes towards key political, social and moral issues taken over many years. Ever since NatCen Social Research's British Social Attitudes survey began in 1983 it has regularly asked a representative sample of people their views about a wide range of topics, creating a unique record of how social attitudes have evolved over the course of the last 30 years.
What might we find - and why?
Before we dig into the data, it is worth pausing to ask: what sort of changes in people's attitudes might we anticipate? One important theory is that in a rapidly changing world, we have all become more individualist. Many argue that some of the changes we outlined earlier have transformed people's lives (Baumann, 2000; Beck, 1992; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002; Giddens, 1999). Previously, it is argued, people lived in relatively stable societies, in which they formed strong bonds and affinities with those with whom they lived and worked, and in which there were clear lines of moral authority. Now, people have to navigate a fluid, diverse social environment in which they are free to choose their identity and moral code; individuals have to create their own lifestyles, rather than living out one inherited from their parents and reinforced by their social interactions with others. If this is true, it potentially has important implications both for how we behave and how we think about society. If individuals now create their own moral codes, they no longer need to look to the traditional social mores and conventions that once dictated acceptable behaviour. And if people are seen as having the freedom to choose, they may also be expected to take responsibility for the consequences of those choices and society may become less willing to provide collective insurance against the risks of individual misjudgement or misfortune. Social solidarity, expressed through institutions such as the welfare state, as well as a willingness to accept the duties of a common citizenship, may have given way to a more individualistic outlook.
If theories of individualism are correct, we would expect to find a steady weakening of people's attachment to traditional social identities such as class, political party and religion. We might also expect to see a transformation in how Britain thinks about marriage, relationships and parenthood, with an increasing sense of 'live and let live'. We might find a more questioning view about the role of the state in its citizens' lives, and perhaps an increasing reluctance to let it step in to help those who have fallen on harder times.
But there are other important reasons why attitudes might have changed over the last three decades. In many areas we might expect to find that attitudes have shifted in response to particular events or to the changing political or economic context. How, for example, do attitudes to government spending in general, or spending on policy areas such as the NHS in particular, relate to actual spending levels and the policy issues of the day? To what extent are our views about politicians and government affected by political scandals? How do views about welfare recipients relate to the economy - do we become more sympathetic and want to see more spending in this area during times of austerity and economic hardship? Is there any evidence that political debates about policy have an impact on how Britain thinks and feels?
Questions such as these remind us that attitudes may not necessarily have moved in one direction. Opinion may have swayed to and fro in response to particular events, scandal and changes in government policy. But we should also remember that if opinion has moved in one direction, it may have done so without many individual people actually changing their mind about an issue. Rather, attitudes can change as a result of what is called 'generational replacement'. This refers to the process by which society's views gradually change as older generations, with distinctive views about particular topics, die out and are slowly replaced by younger generations who have different attitudes and values. As a result, the character of Britain's attitudes and values slowly changes. When this underpins changing attitudes, there is every reason to believe that the change of outlook will prove permanent and possibly intensify.
There are many ways of defining 'generations'. Recently, attention has focused particularly on 'Generation Y', born in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the more well-known baby boomer and pre-war generations (Ipsos Mori, 2012). These broad divisions can be illuminating but, because they impose a certain view of what counts as a generation, they can also mask important differences that exist within particular generations. Given our interest in a 30 year period, this is especially the case within the otherwise large baby boomer and pre-war generations. For that reason, in this report we categorise people by their decade of birth.
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- The difference between the proportions of the population identified as belonging to a religion by the 2011 Census and British Social Attitudes can be partly explained by question wording: the Census asks respondents "What is your religion?" - implying that the respondent has one - while the British Social Attitudes survey asks "Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?" The difference may also be due to the response options offered; with the Census listing the major world religions, and British Social Attitudes listing specific denominations; respondents answering the former would be most likely to see this as a question concerned with 'cultural classification' rather than religion (Voas and Bruce, 2004). Finally, the context of the questions is significant, with the Census question following one on ethnicity, arguably causing 'contamination' of responses (ibid.).
- The objective figures represent the proportions in one of the Registrar General's socio-economic groups 1-6.
- When this question was originally developed in 1984, it asked about "a husband" and "a wife" rather than "a man" and "a woman". This was replaced by a variant of the question using the latter terminology in 1994.
- This finding is sharply at variance with that reported by the Hansard Society's annual Audit of Political Engagement in 2012 and 2013, which found that there had been a marked decline in interest in politics. We would note that the change in the level of reported interest in that survey coincided with a change in the contractor undertaking it and thus perhaps might be a consequence of a change in how the survey was conducted (Hansard Society, 2013).
- This 1981 figure comes from the World Values Survey as reported in Hall (1999).
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