The times, are they changing?

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A common perception of modern times is that the only thing one can take for granted is change itself. But is society really changing much more rapidly, and how can we measure the nature of that change in order to understand and explain what is happening in Britain today? As the ESRC launches its Britain in 2014 publication Raj Patel, Impact Fellow with the UK’s household longitudinal study Understanding Society, asks whether that really is the case.

The recession will have no doubt accelerated certain trends or significantly altered their trajectories but whilst trends are easy to find, there is insufficient appreciation of stability and what hasn’t changed in society. Digital technology is a powerful driver of change today and whilst the internet and mobile communications are the defining features of early 21st Century, it would be a leap of faith to assume that every aspect of society is changing at an exponential rate.

Indeed, the nature of change at the level of individuals, families and households can be viewed through many lenses, such as changing families and fertility, employment, incomes, housing, health, identity, values and politics.

Family life

Take the family. Co-habitation was very rare in the early 1970s, and the number of people who cohabit has doubled to 5.9 million since 1996, but most of these live-in relationships are not life-long. Couples tend to either marry each other or split up, and while the average age of marriage for men and women has been gradually increasing, at some stage this will stabilise. Similarly, the number of divorces in England and Wales rose from 3,396 in 1929 to 165,018 in 1993 but has since fallen to 117,558 by 2011.

After a dramatic growth between the 1960s and 1980s, the divorce rate effectively peaked in 1992 and 2004 but has since fallen to a level last seen in 1977/78.

The workplace

It is also a common perception that in this era of intensified competition, jobs for life have gone and young people need to be trained for jobs that yet do not exist. But careful scrutiny of the evidence shows that conventional accounts of growth of job insecurity can be exaggerated. It is the case that job tenures have changed, and evidence shows that, for example, men entering the labour market since 1980 are twice as likely to quit and nine times more likely to be laid off from their first job than those entering the labour market before 1951. The broad picture is similar for men and women when looking at their fifth job.

But people’s experience of work is highly differentiated. Part of the story is about the growth in managerial occupations where people express job insecurity at the higher end of the labour market and the rise in agency work, temporary jobs and zero-hour contracts at the other end in service industries.

Businesses now have to continually change to stay still and this feeds into job insecurity but other factors such as the recession mean that people are holding onto their current jobs for longer, increasing job tenures in many areas.

Health matters

Changing health is another interesting aspect of modern times. The obesity crises and rise in chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and cardio-vascular diseases might suggest that health is deteriorating even at a time when advances in health awareness, medicine and science are leading to people living much longer lives. Many aspects of health are strongly correlated to age and what society is witnessing are the effects of a gradually ageing society. But it is easy to assume that ill health and impairment are long-term, perhaps irreversible conditions. Part of the perception arises from how health is measured. Much health data is collected through surveys.

When comparing the ‘stock’ of periods of ill health in progress at any point with the ‘flow’ of all episodes of ill health, there is an obvious tendency for long-term and permanent conditions to dominate while illnesses of short duration may not coincide with when the survey interviewers call.

Measuring change

The problem partly arises from the kind of surveys used to measure social change. Social scientists know that more sophisticated methods are needed for measuring and analysing change over time because our present and future behaviour is often shaped by our previous experiences. A decision to quit a job or divorce depends upon the interval since the job was taken or how long a couple has been married. In some cases the positive or negative effects of economic and social factors on people’s lives may not manifest themselves for a number of years. Social commentators, policymakers and researchers also often mistake cyclical change long-term change, assuming that all trends are always upwards. Surveys that track the same individuals and households over long periods can help overcome such issues.

The way UK society is changing over time is the subject of the Understanding Society study. Started in 2009, and funded by the ESRC, it is individually tracking thousands of people from diverse social backgrounds across the UK every year. It is designed to generate new insights into the nature of changes taking place in people’s lives to enable policymakers, civic organisations and businesses to make better decisions. While Understanding Society can provide an annual snapshot of different facets of people’s lives, its real power comes from being used as a motion picture study.

The pace of technological change is certainly having a profound impact on people’s lives. But successive generations tend to believe that they are living through profound changes and that the past was a ‘Golden Age’ of great continuity and stability.

Raj Patel is Impact Fellow for Understanding Society, a research study providing valuable data and evidence for research and decision-making about 21st-century life in the UK.

Britain in 2014 goes on sale on 15 November in WH Smith high street and travel outlets, Marks and Spencer, Waterstones and Boots. You can also order a copy directly by emailing:

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