As someone who spends his working life analysing social trend data, it often surprises me that we do not congratulate ourselves more on the progress we have made as a society. In the last century, life expectancy in the UK has increased from approximately 50 years of age to 80 years and one in three children born today will live to be 100. At the most fundamental level – that of keeping people alive – our society is not doing too bad a job.
But what kind of lives are they leading?
GDP per capita has doubled since the 1970s and Real Household Disposable Income (a better measure of consumer spending power) has increased by two and half times in that period. This spending power has been used to fill our homes with an array of devices that enrich our lives or make them easier, and to fund lifestyles and leisure patterns that would have been beyond the wildest dreams of the 1970s, ‘three-day week’ generation. For younger readers I can confirm that UK homes really were subject to power cuts on a regular basis for a period in the mid-1970s. My mother shopped for candles, not to adorn a dinner party table, but as an essential source of light for winter evenings.
In the social and cultural realm, on most measures we live in a more tolerant and socially progressive country. Data on social attitudes show ever growing support for gender equality and prejudice based on sexual orientation on a firm downward trajectory. Crime is at its lowest level since the British Crime Survey began in the early 1980s.
Our failure to acknowledge this long term progress is perhaps understandable. Few people have the historical evidence at their fingertips. A shorter time horizon inevitably lends a different perspective and one which is currently more pessimistic.
The short-term view would naturally focus on the fall-out from the economic downturn: wages that will not return to their pre-recession levels until 2017, continued austerity and increasingly polarised incomes. Against a backdrop of low crime generally, hate crimes and sexual violence have increased according to the latest statistics. All the evidence suggests that the UK has a poor record on social mobility. At the absolute level it is either stagnating or in decline and does not compare favourably with other developed nations. We also have a housing crisis. As David Cameron highlighted in his conference speech earlier this month, a generation of young adults are waking up each morning in their childhood bedrooms.
From their perspective, talk of long term social progress must ring pretty hollow.