Press release

Secular or cyclical? 40 years of trends in public opinion

The latest British Social Attitudes report marks 40 years of the report, which tracks social and political attitudes in Britain.
  • Publishing date:
    21 September 2023

The latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) report, published by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), launched at an event in Parliament hosted by the House of Commons Library on 21st September, marks BSA’s 40th anniversary of tracking social and political attitudes in Britain.

Using the unique collection of data gathered by BSA since the 1980s, the report examines how public opinion has evolved in the face of substantial social and economic change. A key theme emerges. Attitudes towards many social and moral issues have undergone a profound, long-term, secular change, such that Britain now looks and feels like a different country from forty years ago. In contrast, attitudes toward the economic role of the state have swung to and fro, creating a cyclical pattern that has left the shape of public opinion looking much the same now as in the 1980s.

Social attitudes have become more liberal

Attitudes towards many sexual and family issues have become markedly more liberal – though attitudes towards transgender people have not exhibited a similar trend.

  • In 1983, 50% said that sexual relationships between adults of the same gender were ‘always wrong’. Now just 9% express that view.
  • Only 24% agree that people who want children should get married, compared with 70% in 1989.
  • 76% say that the law should allow an abortion if the woman decided on her own that she does not want to have the child, up from 37% in 1983. 
  • Just 30% now say that a transgender person should be allowed to have the sex on their birth certificate changed if they want, down from 53% in 2019. 

Changing attitudes towards gender roles

Attitudes towards traditional gender roles have changed dramatically – though this is not always reflected in what happens in the home.

  • In 1987, nearly half (48%) agreed that ‘a man’s job is to earn money, a woman’s job is to look after the home and family’. Now, just one in eleven (9%) back that view.
  • In 1989, 46% agreed that ‘a pre-school child is likely to suffer if his/her mother works’. That figure now stands at 21%.
  • When asked who in a mixed sex couple should do the washing and ironing, in 1984 three-quarters said mainly the woman, and only 22% that the task should be shared equally. Now 76% say the task should be shared, while 16% believe it is the woman’s job.
  • However, among those who are currently in a mixed sex relationship, 65% report that the washing and ironing is mainly done by the woman, while just 27% say it is shared equally.

Generational differences

Throughout the last forty years, younger people have always been more liberal than older people. As a result, generational turnover is one of the reasons why Britain has become more liberal in its outlook.

  • On a scale from 0 to 100 which measures whether someone has a ‘liberal’ (0) or ‘authoritarian’ (100) outlook, the average score in 1986 was 69. It still stood at 71 in 1999 and 69 in 2011. Now, the average score is 56. 
  • In 1994, 43% of those who had been born in the 1960s disagreed that people who want to have children should get married. In contrast, just 5% of those born in the 1920s did so. The attitudes of those born in the 1960s are much the same now (41% disagree). However, those born in the 1920s have been replaced by more liberal younger generations – 55% of those born in the 1990s disagree.

A cyclical pattern: The economic role of the state

Attitudes towards the role and size of government have moved up and down. These movements have occurred in response to changing circumstances, including changes in the level of government spending and shocks such as the fiscal crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • In 1983, 32% said the government should increase taxes and spend more on ‘health, education and social benefits’. By 1998, nearly twice as many, 63% held that view. By 2010 it had fallen back again, to just 31%. Now it is as high as 55% once more.
  • In 2006, just 27% said it should definitely be the government’s responsibility to ‘provide industry with the help it needs to grow’ – down from 52% in 1985. Now the figure is at a record high of 63%.
  • Similarly, the proportion who say that it should definitely be the government’s responsibility to ‘keep prices under control’ stood at 59% in 1985, but at just 31% in 2006. Now it has risen to 68%.

Ups and downs in attitudes towards welfare and poverty

Attitudes towards welfare became less generous in the era of New Labour, but now have since swung back again. 

  • In 1989, 61% agreed that the ‘government should spend more on welfare benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes’. By 2009, the figure has fallen to just 27%. More recently, in 2017, the proportion had risen back up to 43% and now stands at 37%.
  • Between 1993 and 2005, the proportion who agreed that ‘many people who get social security don’t really deserve any help’ increased from 24% to 40%. By 2019 the figure had fallen to 15% and is now 19%.
  • In 1994 as many as 71% felt that there was ‘quite a lot’ of poverty in Britain. However, by 2006 only 52% were of that view. Now it has risen again to 69%.

The continued importance of class

In the 1980s around half of people said they were middle or working class. Today, if anything, they have become more aware of the impact of class on people’s opportunities in life.

  • When in 1983 people were asked directly whether they were middle or working class, 58% said they were working class. In 2021 the figure was, at 52%, little different.
  • In 1983, 70% said that a person’s social class affects their opportunities in Britain ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’. Now 77% express that view.
  • The proportion who think it is ‘very difficult’ for people to move from one class to another has nearly doubled from 17% in 2005 to 32% now.

An enduring left/right divide

Over the last forty years, Britain has sometimes swung to the ‘left’, sometimes to the ‘right’. Despite changes in how they vote, there are still only limited differences of view between younger and older people. 

  • A scale from 0 to 100 which measures whether someone is ‘left-wing’ (0) or right-wing (100) has uncovered small shifts in both directions over time. In 1986 the average score was 38. By 1995 it had fallen to 34, but then by 2004 it stood at 42. By 2013 it was back to 38 again, while now it has slipped to 33.
  • In 1986, those aged under 35 and those aged 55 and over had the same average score – 37 on this scale. In 2019 they both scored 38. However, more recently there has been something of a swing to the left among younger people (who now score 28) that has not been replicated among older people (who now score 36).

Gillian Prior, Deputy Chief Executive at NatCen said: “The 40th Annual British Attitudes Survey reflects the profound change of the British population since 1983. Many more people now go to university, are employed in white-collar jobs; more women, including those with younger children, go out to work, while a growing population of older people means there are more men and women who are no longer working at all. The population is more ethnically diverse, while a decline in rates of marriage has been accompanied by more diverse types of family formation, including by same-sex couples, and this is reflected in British social and moral attitudes.”

Sir John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow at NatCen said: “The vast social changes that Britain has witnessed over the last 40 years have been accompanied by a near-revolution in attitudes towards many social and moral issues, including sexuality and the role of women. In contrast, although they have fluctuated up and down in response to changing political and economic circumstances, attitudes towards inequality and the economic role of the state are still not that different from those of forty years ago. The debate about these subjects still has a familiar ring to it.

That said, there are two key points politicians will want to note as they consider how to frame their appeals for the next general election. The pandemic and the cost of living crisis seem to have left the public rather more inclined than at some points in the past to look to government to solve the problems they and the country face. Yet, despite this apparent enhanced appetite for ‘bigger government’, people now expect to able to live their own lives and look to government to facilitate that desire rather than stand in the way. In the coming months politicians will need to think carefully about when they propose to intervene and when they suggest that government should stand back.” 

Grant Hill-Cawthorne, Managing Director of Research & Information at the House of Commons Library said: “The House of Commons Library provides politically impartial briefings and statistics to help MPs to scrutinise legislation, prepare for debates, develop policies and support their constituents. Studies by NatCen are a consistently valuable resource to researchers in the Library, providing societal views and context to include in our work on a range of topics, from affordable housing to the justice system. 

It is our great pleasure to host NatCen in Parliament as they launch the 2023 British Social Attitudes survey, so that we can celebrate together 40 years of essential insights into the social, political and moral attitudes of this country.”

For more information please contact:

Emileigh Spurdens, Communications Manager, National Centre for Social Research
Direct: 0207 549 8506

Katie Crabb, Head of Marketing and Communications, National Centre for Social Research
Direct: 0207 549 8504