Guy Goodwin, Chief Executive, National Centre for Social Research1

September 2016

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%, 12 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.

  1. ‘NATCEN Social Research That Works for Society’, NATCEN Social Research