Saturday, 10 July 2010

Happy Birthday Social Trends!

The annual survey of life in Britain is forty years old this week. The latest volume, weighing in at 243 pages, gives a refreshingly cool and trustworthy picture of how the nation has changed over the last 40 years.
Life expectancy is up. Girls born in 2008 can expect to live seven years longer than those born in 1970, and boys nine years longer. We smoke less (surely not a disconnected fact). We are better educated. We are much richer. Real household disposable income per head is 2½ times more today than it was in 1970. And we holiday abroad much more often, making on average 45 million holiday trips today compared with 6.7 million in 1971.All this makes it seem like things have only got better. But there are other, complicating factors.
We may be richer as a society but we are more unequal. The accepted measure of economic inequality, the Gini co-efficient (calculated between 0 and 100, with 0 representing complete equality and 100 representing complete inequality) increased from 26 in 1977 to 34 in 2008. Even if the poor aren’t actually poorer (at least in absolute terms) they certainly feel poorer. 
We may have more money but we save far less of it. Households saved around seven per cent of their total annual resources in 1970. In 2008, it was under two per cent.

Financial crisis and economic downturn have forced it up a bit since then but we are still a long way from financial security.
There may be more of us – the population has risen from 56 million in 1971 to 61 million today – but we are choosing to have far fewer children.
Most tellingly, we may live longer lives, but they are increasingly more fluid and isolated. The number of first marriages has fallen precipitously, whereas the number of single person households, divorces, and children born outside marriage has risen steadily. And while we may congratulate ourselves that the number of teenagers getting pregnant has fallen from 134,000 in 1970 to 106,000 in 2007, the number who gave birth has fallen far more steeply, from 117,000 in 1970 to 63,000. No prizes for guessing what happened to the difference.-
How can we explain this see-saw of statistics, some showing life going up, some seemingly showing it coming down?
Perhaps like this. Life is better for me, but not for us. I can expect to live longer, earn more and travel further. But we are less likely to live together, stay together or maintain economic equality. Or maybe we can put it another way. We are forgetting what life is for. My comfort and my leisure are on the up. But my willingness to sacrifice what I have – for other people, for children, for the future, for the common good – is declining.-
“Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” Jesus’ words carve through distorted notions of life. The more we hoard, the more we will lose. The more we celebrate and exercise ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’, the more we erode the bonds of trust, fidelity, patience, perseverance, love that make us human, that make life truly worthwhile.-

But the more we give away – whether to family, friends, neighbours, or God – the more we will have.

Nick Spencer is Director of Studies at Theos

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