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How is life in Britain looking as we enter the 2020s?

Posted on 22 January 2020 by Guy Goodwin, Chief Executive .
Tags: public trust, Social Trends, Society Watch, inequality, life expectancy, social and political attitudes

Guy Goodwin considers some of the key long-term trends facing politicians and policymakers, ten years on from the 40th and last printed version of the compendium Social Trends.

As we move into the 2020s, the UK remains one of the richest countries in the world, with a stable political system built up over several centuries. There is a compelling case that those born today – let’s call them Olivia and Oliver, the most popular babies’ names in the latest statistics – will have an enhanced range of life opportunities compared with those born in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Olivia and Oliver might be expected to experience improved life expectancy, lower infant mortality rates, higher standards of living, better health and education and (for Olivia especially) more life choices.

And yet, evidence from our new report on social trends suggests the future may not be as rosy, and raises some key questions for policy makers and politicians alike.

Changes in life expectancy at birth and trends in physical and mental health are particularly noteworthy. The long-standing gap in life expectancy between males and females at birth might close in the 2020s, not because male life expectancy is catching up, but because life expectancy for females in disadvantaged areas is falling.

Furthermore, the ageing of our population is no longer an issue for the long-term as the baby boom generation, born in the 1960s, now moves out of the work force into traditional pension ages. Are we ready for the health, social care and financial needs of a larger older population, one which is expected to see a doubling of those aged 85 or over during the next 25 years?


Change in life expectancy at birth between 2012–14 and 2015–17 by sex and Index of Multiple Deprivation Decile (Source: ONS)

Concerns around economic and social inequalities continue to rise, and there’s a risk that it becomes increasingly expensive to address the symptoms of disadvantage, rather than the causes – for example, a need to continuously increase spending on benefits or the NHS. 

Differences between the life chances of those from more advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds are proving difficult to shift, and social mobility has reduced, along with wider concerns around multiple disadvantage.

Public attitudes data suggests, too, that confidence in our political system has deteriorated over time. For example, the percentage saying that they had very little or no confidence in Parliament rose from 35% in 1991 to a majority (55%) by 2008. By 2011, 72% agreed with the statement that it doesn’t matter which party is in power, things go on much the same. In 2018, only 8% of the public said they were very strong supporters of a political party.

On Europe and immigration, the evidence suggests there has been a gap over many years between what most of the public have wanted and what politicians have delivered. Despite further devolution and the “no” vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, whether the United Kingdom is working sufficiently well for the Scottish people remains a live issue, with just under 50% continuing to support independence. It shouldn’t necessarily surprise, where gaps persist, that more populist or nationalist politicians may emerge to fill them.

But perhaps the biggest question, following the Big Society and initiatives to help the “just about managing”, is whether we have, and even need, a compelling narrative for Society – for the “group”, rather than for individuals.

Those born in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s (let’s call them John and Margaret), children and babies of the second world war and now many of them in later life, may reflect on the relative peace in the UK since 1945, the improvements in life expectancy, health, education and rights during their life-time – but also on the challenges still facing Oliver and Olivia, born in the early months of 2020.

Guy Goodwin is Chief Executive of the National Centre for Social Research. NatCen’s report, published 16th January 2020, highlights recent social trends, from the cradle to the grave, at the start of the new decade.

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