Personal relationships / Explaining change

Explaining change 

Before we begin it is worth setting out a number of features of the last three decades which may have had a significant impact on the public's views. 

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there"

Later on we will explore the ways in which British society today objectively looks very different to how it was in 1983 when the British Social Attitudes survey began. It would be astonishing if this was not linked to a change in how the British public thinks. In the literature, such a phenomenon is described as a 'period effect' and can encompass a wide array of factors that might shape the way people think about their world. Three types of factor are worthy of particular note. The first type relates to events and their consequences - for instance, as we will see later, the way in which the discovery of HIV AIDS in the 1980s seems to have had an impact on attitudes towards homosexuality during that period. The second are to do with the political context of the time - who is in power, the nature of their support, and the key policy debates of the moment; in our chapter on Government spending and welfare, for example, we discuss the way in which policy debates about benefit reform during the 1990s had a profound and lasting impact on public attitudes in general, and the views of Labour party supporters in particular. And the third type of factor concerns social trends in behaviour; as we discuss later on, cohabitation rates in the 1980s were a fraction of their current levels, so someone forming their views about marriage and cohabitation now does so against a very different backdrop to the one that existed three decades ago. 

But the general social, political and demographic context of the time is not the only reason why the public's views might shift. We also need to consider three other features. These differ from period effects in the sense that, theoretically, it is possible for them to have a dramatic long-term impact on societal views without any single person changing their mind about a particular issue. This is because all three involve changes in the prevalence of particular groups with distinctive views - thus as the proportion of people in these groups changes over time, so too do social attitudes. The three we focus on in this chapter concern generational change, the role of religion and the rise of the graduate. 

The generation game

undefinedWe will see later in the chapter that young people tend to have more liberal and tolerant views than their elders. This reflects the importance of the generation that a person is born into, the argument being that their formative experiences as they are growing up will indelibly shape their attitudes and values across a wide range of issues, and these attitudes will subsequently not shift very much as they get older. There are different possible explanations as to how this process might work and the nature of the impact it might have on people's values. One approach emphasises the 'political era' during which a particular generation comes of age, arguing that the distinctive political and economic atmosphere will have a lasting impact on those who were developing their political consciousness at that time (Mannheim, 1928). An alternative view is derived from the theory of 'postmaterialism' (Inglehart, 1977), arguing that different generations are shaped by 'formative affluence' - that is, the level of economic affluence and stability they experienced in their formative years. Alternatively, it may be that the sorts of period effects we have already described have an impact on everyone through a process of what has been called 'contagion', but have a particularly strong effect on younger generations (Jagodzinski and Dobbelaere, 1994).

If it is the case that each subsequent generation is more liberal than its predecessor, we should find that attitudes across society as a whole gradually change as older, less tolerant, generations die out and are replaced by generations with more liberal views. But in assessing whether or not this is the case we need to bear in mind that, on some issues, people's views may simply change as they get older, as depicted in the well-known quote attributed to Churchill: "If you're not a Liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a Conservative at forty you have no brain." If this is the case, the fact that a particular generation has a different view on an issue to an older one may simply reflect the lifecycle stage that that generation has reached and this will continue to shift as they get older. 

The ideal way of untangling lifecycle and generational differences is to use data from a panel survey in which the same people are interviewed repeatedly over time. However, although the British Social Attitudes survey interviews a fresh sample of people every year, its longevity means that we can use it to trace the attitudes of particular cohorts of people and assess the extent to which their attitudes change or remain stable over time (for more information about cohort analysis please see the Technical details chapter). 

There are countless ways of defining 'generations', with recent attention focusing 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). This focus can be illuminating but can also mask important differences that exist within particular generations, particularly within the otherwise large baby boomer and pre-war generations. For that reason, we have chosen to categorise people by their decade of birth. 

Declining religious attachment 

In the introduction to this chapter we outlined the important role that the Church has played in shaping people's attitudes towards the choices they make in their relationships (or whether indeed such choices are possible) - whether to cohabit, to have children outside marriage or to have a sexual relationship with someone of the opposite sex. In each section we will consider the influence that religion still has on people's views and how this has changed over time. 

undefinedChanging patterns of religiosity, as measured by a question we have included in the survey since 1983 about religious belonging, are shown in Table 1.1. The key headline is obvious; religious belonging in Britain has declined since 1983, with a steady increase in the proportion of people who do not regard themselves as belonging to any religion, up from 31 per cent in 1983 to 48 per cent in 2012. This increase is almost entirely mirrored by a decline in the proportion of people who describe themselves as belonging to the Church of England, down from 40 per cent in 1983 to 20 per cent now. The proportion of people who describe themselves as Catholic or as belonging to another Christian religion has changed little over the period, while the proportion who belong to non-Christian religions has grown, from two per cent in 1983 to six per cent now. 


undefinedThese trends are closely linked to the generational differences we have just described. Figure 1.1 illustrates this by showing the proportion in each generation who say they do not identify with any religion, and how this has changed over time. It shows that each generation tends to be slightly less religious than the one that preceded it, and that levels of religiosity do not vary very much over the lifetime of a generation. So, while less than three in ten of those born in the 1930s did not identify with any religion throughout their lifetime (26 per cent in 1983; 27 per cent in 2012), this was the case for around six in ten of those born in the 1960s (58 per cent in 1983; 56 per cent now). And, although we do not have complete data for later generations, there are clear signs that these trends are set to continue. 


We would anticipate these trends to be linked with increasingly liberal attitudes towards personal relationships and sexual behaviour over time, with less emphasis on 'traditional' behaviour. Later on we will look at the extent to which this is true.

The growth of the graduate 

The last 30 years have seen huge changes in levels of education in Britain, with the most pronounced change being the rise in the proportion of young people going into higher education. These changes are clearly reflected in the survey findings. Back in 1985, when we first started asking detailed questions about education, only seven per cent of participants were graduates and nearly half, 45 per cent, had no qualifications at all. By 2012, the number with degrees had tripled (to 21 per cent), while the number with no qualifications fell to 19 per cent. 

undefinedFor the purposes of this chapter, these changes matter because of the relationship that exists between graduate-level education and liberal values across a range of areas. There are various factors that might account for this, including the impact of education on an individual's cognitive development and/or the absorption of liberal values as part of the socialisation experience of being a student (Surridge, 2010). Consequently, we might expect to see increasingly liberal views about the sorts of issues being considered in this chapter as higher education has expanded.[2]

The changing educational profile of Britain is closely linked to age, with younger generations containing more graduates than older ones, and older generations containing more people without any qualifications than younger ones. 

There are various ways in which we can try and tease out the relative importance of generation, religion and education, and we explore these later. But here we flag a couple of patterns to which we will pay particular attention. The first relates to whether we find notable and constant differences between the attitudes of the different groups we are interested in, with these changing little over the last 30 years. In these circumstances, a change in the number of people in one of these groups (for example, a generation dying out, or a decline in the proportion of Anglicans) will be a strong candidate for explaining changes in attitudes. The second relates to whether or not any of the groups of particular interest have themselves changed their views over time as, if they have, it means any trends we have identified cannot be accounted for by the changing composition or prevalence of those particular groups alone. 

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  1. BBC news, 17th February 2001, available at:
  2. It is possible that the expansion of higher education will affect the relationship between degree-level education and social values, especially if the main mechanism by which education affects attitudes is socialisation (rather than cognitive development). So as a wider cross-section of young people attend university, the distinctive nature of their values is diluted.
  3. Bases for Table 1.4 are as follows:
  4. Bases for Table 1.5 are as follows: 
  5. In summary, there has been a considerable rise since 1983 in the proportion who identify with no political party whatsoever, up from eight per cent in 1983 to 21 per cent now. The proportion of Conservative identifiers has shrunk (from 39 to 27 per cent) and the proportion of Labour identifiers has remained broadly constant (33 and 36 per cent in 1983 and 2012 respectively). In 1983, 15 per cent of people identified with the Liberal/SDP Alliance, compared with six per cent in 2012 identifying with the Liberal Democrats. Further details can be found in the Politics chapter.  
  6. Bases for Table 1.6 are as follows:
  7. Speech by Margaret Thatcher to the Conservative Party Conference, 1987, 9th October, available at:
  8. See, for example, the ILGA Europe review of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and intersex people in Europe, available at:
  9. Bases for Table 1.8 are as follows:
  10. The Guardian Datablog, 7th October 2012, available at: