Technical reports

Towards a more liberal Britain. Generational change or different times?

This technical briefing paper supplements our Society Watch 2024 report, exploring the value of Hierarchical Age-Cohort-Period modelling.
Download PDF
Diverse group of people waiting at bus stop on summer day in UK


Data from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) study shows that Britain is becoming more socially liberal, with people less concerned about following specific moral codes and social norms, and increasingly more likely to think that people should be left to decide for themselves how to live their lives. In this short paper, we try to separate three elements that can explain the liberal turn in social attitudes: is this a generational effect? Do contemporary events and the times we live in play a role in shaping our attitudes? Or are liberal and conservative attitudes influenced by how old we are? 

This paper supplements our main Society Watch report. To read this, click on the link below:

Society Watch 2024: Understanding the new generation of voters | National Centre for Social Research


We found that the liberal turn in social attitudes is driven by a birth cohort effect, with people born in recent years being less conservative than people born in earlier years. However, this is not explained by the conventional division in generations: people in the same generations do not appear to share common features that could explain their social attitudes, after we account for the effects linked to their year of birth.

Contemporary events also play a role, with people in Britain showing more socially conservative attitudes in response to specific events. We have found an increase of authoritarian positions from the early 2000s, peaking in the years of austerity after the 2007-08 financial crisis.

We did not find age to have a strong effect in explaining the liberal turn of social attitudes in Britain. Whether someone holds more conservative or liberal views is determined by the year of birth, and not by having a specific age. 


The analysis was based on data from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) study, collected between 1986 and 2023 by the National Centre for Social Research. Given the probability-based deign of the study, the findings on this report can be inferred to the adult population of Great Britain.

The findings are based on Hierarchical Age-Cohort-Period statistical models, which are a form of multilevel regression models adapted to solve the identification problem emerging in the Age-Cohort-Period analysis. In such analysis the age of the individual is equal to the year when the data was collected (period) minus the year when the person was born (cohort), meaning that the three variables (age, cohort, period) are conceptually different, but analytically indistinguishable.