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A nation in numbers: 100 years of British life in 7 statistics

As the Office for National Statistics rolls out its 2021 Census of England and Wales, David Bradbury and Boris Starling reveal what statistics can tell us about seven aspects of British life over the past century – from immigration rates to our changing taste in baby names

Babies from a nursery are walked in a pram, c1953
Published: April 18, 2021 at 6:37 am
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The ups and downs of birth rates

The number of people being born is a fundamentally important statistic – it is, after all, one of the key determinants in the size of the population. The birth rate has generally been on the decline since the turn of the 20th century, not surprising given developments such as the huge fall in the infant mortality rate (15 per cent in 1900; 0.4 per cent in 2018) and the development of reliable contraception.


But this has not been a straight-line decline: the number of births in the UK dipped below a million for the first time in 1915 but, by 1920, had soared back up to 1.1 million, the highest on record. Why the rapid rise? Well, perhaps it was simply the effect of demobilisation bringing couples back together. Or maybe it was a conscious desire to replace the population lost in the war and Spanish flu pandemic.

Birth rates fell again when the country was plunged into war in 1939. However, on this occasion, the number of births did not continue to decline throughout the conflict – it actually bottomed out in 1941.

The number of births in the UK dipped below a million for the first time in 1915 but, by 1920, had soared back up to 1.1 million

Famously, the postwar years saw a strong recovery, to the extent that the late 1940s through to the early 1960s became known as the “baby boom”.

In 1961, the contraceptive pill was introduced to married women on the NHS. By 1974 it was available to single women too.

In the final decades of the 20th century, birth rates fell once more, plunging to a low of 657,038 in 1977, but it has rallied slightly since, reaching a recent peak in 2012 at almost 813,000.


The striking decline of labour disputes

It won’t surprise many readers that 1926, the year of the General Strike and a long-running miners’ strike, saw more working days lost to labour disputes than any other since records began. Equally, you probably won’t be shocked to discover that a more recent peak occurred in 1984, a year that saw another high-profile miners’ strike.

You may be surprised, however, to learn exactly how much labour unrest there was before and just after the First World War: in terms of days lost, 1921 was second only to 1926, followed by 1912. This suggests that, even before the trauma of conflict, the working class were not prepared to put up uncomplainingly with their lot. In fact, it could be argued that the year in which official figures began to be collected (1891) was itself a reaction to a glut of famous disputes, among them the match girls’ strike of 1888 and the dockers’ strike the next year.

The First World War did see a reduction in unrest as the energies of the country turned to the war effort – but only up to a point. 1917, the year of Passchendaele, saw 5.6 million days lost to strikes – that’s more than 20 times the 234,000 days lost in 2019.

Since the 1970s and 1980s the labour market has been transformed in a number of ways, among them a decline in manufacturing jobs (down from 6.7 million in 1978 to 2.7 million in 2019) and in trade union membership (down from a peak of 13.2 million in 1979 to 6.4 million in 2019).

Alongside these changes, the number of days lost to strikes has fallen to a fraction of what it was three or four decades ago, with 2005 seeing a record low of just 157,000 days lost.


What’s in a name?

In recent decades the range of names we give our children has been broadening as parents seek to stand out from the crowd. In England and Wales in 1996, three-quarters of boys and three-fifths of girls were given a name from that year’s top 100; by 2018 it was less than half for boys and two-fifths for girls. That trend hasn’t stopped some stalwart names (such as William) enjoying a renaissance.


The ins and outs of migration

Immigration and emigration have both been on the rise over the past few decades. Given that we now live in an age of full-blown globalisation – when even the world’s most far-flung climes are nothing more than a flight away (or at least they were before Covid-19 struck) – this is hardly a surprise.

This phenomenon is reflected in the statistics. In the latter decades of the 20th century, the number of people emigrating – that is, on our definitions, moving abroad for at least a year – was running between 200,000 and 300,000 a year. That figure has now risen to about 300,000–400,000.

In the 1960s and 1970s the number of people migrating to the UK every year was generally slightly lower than those emigrating, so producing a downward effect on the overall population of the country. However, immigration has grown more strongly than emigration in the last two or three decades, and in recent years has been running at about 600,000 a year. The last time there was net emigration was 1992.

It’s notable that, while work remains a major reason for both immigration and emigration, the number of people coming to the UK to study increased from fewer than 30,000 in 1977 to more than 220,000 in 2019, while the number of people going to study abroad barely increased.

As a result of these changes, the composition of the population has become far more cosmopolitan. In 1951, less than 5 per cent of the population of England and Wales had been born abroad; by 2011, this figure had risen to more than 13 per cent.


Own? Rent? Buy-to-let? Property’s ever-changing landscape

Do you own or rent the home you live in? How you answer that question will have a major influence on your life. Opinion polls suggest that Britons overwhelmingly aspire to be home-owners, but in recent years the proportion of those who realise that ambition has fallen.

Over the past century, there have been significant shifts in housing tenure. At the end of the First World War, over three-quarters of people in England lived in rented accommodation, virtually all of it rented privately. But soon that figure was in a sharp decline. In fact, the second half of the 20th century saw a strong growth in the number of owner-occupiers in England; by 2001, they accounted for nearly 70 per cent of the total.

At the end of the First World War, over three-quarters of people in England lived in rented accommodation

The proportion of English properties that were socially rented (from local councils or housing associations) also surged in the postwar years – and, by 1981, had reached almost a third of the total. But then that growth was sent into reverse. No doubt this was partially the result of Margaret Thatcher’s decision to allow council tenants the right to buy their homes – resulting in 1.8 million properties being sold in the last 40 years.

And what of the private rented sector? About 30 years ago, this one-time powerhouse of the housing market accounted for just one in 10 of all English properties.

That figure has since doubled, undoubtedly assisted by the availability of “buy to let” mortgages, and a rise in the real price of residential property. While average pay has risen by 45 per cent in the past 15 years, it’s been outstripped by house prices, which have surged by 57 per cent.


The rise of the older parent

Parents are, on average, older now than at any point since records began. The average age of women in England and Wales when they gave birth reached a high of 30.5 in 2018, while fathers were, on average, almost exactly three years older again. (Note that this figure applies to all births, not just first births).

The ageing parent is nothing new: in fact, mothers and fathers have been getting gradually older for the past 50 years. But, before that, the figures generally moved in the opposite direction.

In England and Wales, statisticians began recording mothers’ ages in 1938, and throughout most of that earlier period, the figure fell – from age 29 in that first year to below 26.5 in the mid-1970s. An exception to this trend occurred during the dislocation of the Second World War.

Once the data for the age of fathers starts (1964), a similar picture emerges – declining into the mid-1970s and rising thereafter. Interestingly, the gap between the ages of mothers and fathers seems to remain pretty constant at about three years throughout the entire period.


Students multiply... But where are all the housewives?

The term “economic inactivity” is a bit of a mouthful, but in effect it refers to people who are neither working nor available for and looking for work. What are the reasons for “economic inactivity”? Many older people, of course, have simply retired. But what about those of working age?

What we think of as “working age” has undoubtedly altered over time – thanks to changes, for example, in the school leaving age – but let’s take 16–64 as the benchmark.

Over the past 25 years or so, the reasons that people have cited for their “economic inactivity” in our Labour Force Survey have changed dramatically. Many of these changes have been triggered by the huge growth in the country’s student population. Until the early years of the 21st century, the number of people in the UK who were inactive because they were students remained fairly stable, at around 1.5 million. Then it climbed rapidly, peaking at around 2.5 million in 2010, before plateauing and falling slightly. Muddying the waters slightly is the fact that not all full-time students count as inactive. They might also have, or be looking for, a part-time job, and so could count as employed.

The number of people who count as economically inactive in the UK because they are looking after their family or home has declined from about 3 million since the early 1990s to barely half that figure. However, the proportion of men among them has risen from about 4 per cent to more than 13 per cent in that time.

Meanwhile the number of 16–64s who say they’re retired has dropped in recent years. This decline has chiefly occurred among women, undoubtedly because they no longer qualify for state pension at 60.

David Bradbury is senior media relations officer at the Office for National Statistics. Boris Starling is a novelist, screenwriter and journalist. David and Boris have co-written The Official History of Britain: Our Story in Numbers as Told by the Office for National Statistics (HarperCollins, 2020)


This article was first published in the April 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine


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