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Society and People - what’s on the horizon?

Guy Goodwin, Chief Executive, National Centre for Social Research

September 2016

In this, my first “Let’s Talk About Society” article, I do some future gazing. Horizon scanning is important because it can take time and resources to develop and implement successful policies and interventions that improve people’s lives.

I plan to use these pieces to share some insights on our society through the evidence we and others collect, while also making the case for the importance of high quality research and how it allows us to better understand society.

Our population and society are changing. The effects help explain the recent “Brexit” vote, rather than being fundamentally changed by it, and steer policy makers towards:

  • Refocusing, and providing a greater focus, on society and social issues, following the economic recession;
  • Medium and long term planning, given the expected population growth and ageing;
  • Prioritising concerns on diversity, loss of identity and immigration;
  • Reducing inequalities and improving wellbeing for particular groups and geographical areas;
  • Addressing the lack of trust in authority, including Government.

So what might we expect in the future? Here are eight of the more important areas affecting our society in the UK that you might want to take account of in your own horizon scanning:

1.    Population Growth

There is expected to be sustained and uneven population growth over time (including by geography). The UK population is projected to grow from 65 million in 2015 to reach 70 million in 2027.

Our population is ageing - caused by increasing life expectancy combined with the “baby boomers” leaving traditional working ages - and we can expect to have twice the number of 80+ year olds in the next 25 years.

We have recently had high levels of international immigration, while future levels and fertility patterns of new migrants are uncertain. The latter provides challenges for those planning local services, such as nursery and primary school provision.  

2.    More Diversity

There is increasing diversity by race, religion, disability and sexual orientation, as well as in the way we live our lives from the two million lone parents with children in the UK to over one million vegetarians.  

Diversity needs to be put in context and varies significantly by geography. 82% of the UK population stated its ethnicity as White British in the last Census with the figure much higher in rural areas. In contrast, more than 100 languages are spoken in 30 of the 33 London Boroughs while less than 20% of compulsory aged pupils in Inner London primary schools are White British. Much of the recent change in ethnic diversity has been driven by immigration, directly or indirectly (mainly, births to immigrants).

Rapid change in diversity leads to inclusion risks in local areas (a leading Think Tank this year reported Boston as the least integrated place in Britain) and for particular groups (such as over 850,000 residents in England and Wales unable to speak English well or at all). 

3.    Growing Inequalities

The wealthiest decile (10%) of households in the UK owns 45% of our total aggregate wealth, compared with the least wealthy half owning 9%. The gap has been growing. Over half of wealthy households are in London, the South East and East. There have also been growing inequalities over the longer term in household disposable income.

The overall poverty rate for the UK in 2014 was 16.8%, 12th highest of the EU countries. About 6.5% of the UK population (3.9 million) are defined as in persistent income poverty. Poverty is uneven by geography and is higher for single person households. There has been increased focus on those in the greatest financial hardship, from debt accumulation to the increasing use of foodbanks. For example, the Trussell Trust states it provided over 1 million emergency food supplies to people in crisis last year, over 400,000 to children.  

Inequalities impact on life chances and outcomes - for example, the differences in attainment in GCSEs (% with 5 A*-C, including English and Maths) between those eligible for free school meals (33% attainment in 2015) and those not (61%).

4.    Globalisation v Identity

The world is becoming more interconnected, driven by advances in technology. We make more visits abroad today than there are UK residents.  Politicians and businesses are increasingly looking globally for influence and opportunities.

NatCen’s British Social Attitudes Survey tells us that on two issues in particular - security and the economy - people feel that it makes sense for the United Kingdom to be part of a European Union.

The survey also provides evidence of a desire to remain “rooted” to our identity and heritage. National identity and a desire for greater devolution of powers were key themes in the Scottish referendum. Both identity and migration are drivers for a desire to leave the EU with 40% thinking the EU is undermining Britain’s cultural identity. Many of us also continue to identify with being working class, when on most measures (other than self-reporting) we would not be.

We say we are “very proud” of our armed forces, our history, science and technology, sporting achievements and arts/literature - compared with lower scores (10-20%) for economic achievements, global political influence, the social security system and fairness/equality.

5.    Freedom and Norms

We have more personal autonomy than previous generations, for example with enhanced opportunities for women in education and the labour market.

Attitudes have also become more tolerant of personal autonomy. In 1989, 70% of people agreed that people who want children ought to get married, against less than 40% in 2013. The percentage believing same-sex relationships are wrong has fallen from 70% to under 20%.

Alongside this growth in individual freedom, there has been a reduction in our sense of “belonging” and concerns about loneliness. Some of our traditional associations (such as family, local community and religion) are less strong and have not necessarily been replaced. For example, the UK’s leading category of religion, at around 45-50%, is “no religion”.

The impact of our enhanced freedom on those who may depend on us (whether it be the number of elderly people who go regularly without speaking to anyone or the impact of different family formations on children) remain areas relatively under-researched.

6.    Reducing Trust in Authority

There are reducing levels of trust in Authority (including Government) and, unaddressed, these are likely to fall further.

NatCen’s British Social Attitudes Survey suggests that 18% of the population trusted Government to place the needs of the nation above their own party political interests in 2012, down from 38 per cent in 1986. 30% of the population believe that Government would almost never do so and 50% they will do so only some (but not most) of the time. The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer suggests a lack of trust in Government is correlated with income (the lower your income, the less you trust).

In 1986, 92% of us thought Banks were well run; the equivalent in 2012 was 19%. Our confidence in the Police, BBC and the media also fell (albeit by smaller amounts) over the same period.           

7.    Technology - the great enabler

Technological advances are driving new ways in which we live our lives. They bring opportunities, concerns (for example, cyber-crime) and risks of exclusion (those who do not use the internet). Smartphones have overtaken laptops as the users’ device of choice while 4G is changing how we can communicate, for example shopping and banking increasingly “on the move”.

The Office for National Statistics reports that 88% of adults in the UK used the internet in the last three months and only 10% have never made use of it; a figure which is reducing over time. Increasingly services are being made available on the internet, often more cheaply, while two thirds of women over the age of 75 and 25% of the disabled have never used the internet before.

Ofcom reports we spend an average of almost 22 hours per week online, mostly at home - a figure that varies by age. There are emerging concerns about the effects of excessive internet use, for example on the educational attainment of children.

8.    Differences in Wellbeing

Measures of wellbeing are designed to give a picture of the UK, and how people are feeling about their lives, which is beyond just economic considerations.

The Office for National Statistics reports that personal wellbeing has generally been improving. For the year ending 2015, life satisfaction, feeling that your life is worthwhile and happiness scores were all up significantly. Our anxiety levels reduced.  However, the proportion of people satisfied with their health, housing, household income and leisure time have fallen over a three year period. Population mental wellbeing scores also fell.

There is increasing inequality evident in the wellbeing measures with the proportion reporting very high personal wellbeing growing faster than the proportion reporting low levels is falling. Lower levels of personal wellbeing are reported in the North of England (NW, NE and Yorkshire and Humberside) and London, compared with the South (SW and SE) and East.  

Some of the associated objective measures, for example of our health, have worsened over the last decade. Obesity and overweight prevalence (now around a quarter of 16+ year olds) has continued to rise moderately following sharp increases in the 1990s.


At the National Centre for Social Research, we work with a range of partners for the benefit of our society, looking at expected changes and providing evidence to inform possible interventions that can improve lives. These eight areas of change are set to continue to impact on society and how we feel about the UK.

Much of the focus of debate before, during and since the European Union referendum has, understandably, been on the economy. However, the evidence tells us the economy, at least directly, is not why people voted to leave the EU. One of the messages for policy makers is “Let’s Talk about Society”.