What is life like for the British generation born in the late 1960s and early 1970s?

The generation who grew up in Thatcher’s Britain – Generation X – came of age at a time of social flux and transformation. Today, as the generation enters middle age, it is making its mark on British society. Indeed, some are even running the country – David Cameron, George Osborne, Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett are all Gen Xers, born in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

But what is life like for your average Gen Xer? The 1970 British Cohort Study, run by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the UCL Institute of Education, has been following the lives of more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales since they were born. The study offers an unparalleled insight into the health, lifestyle, employment, attitudes and economic circumstances of a generation.

A special issue of the journal Longitudinal and Life Course Studies paints a portrait of the 1970 generation in middle age, taking stock of what has changed – and what has stayed the same – in the cohort members’ lives.

While unemployment was low in the early 1970s, the decade saw growing industrial and social unrest. Strike action culminated in the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1978-79, and the Troubles began to unfold in Northern Ireland.

Thatcher was elected in 1979, when the cohort members were nine years old, remaining in power until they were 20 in 1990. The Thatcher government marked the end of the post-war consensus and the start of widening inequalities. Public utilities were privatised and council housing sold off.

Housing and education

At five years of age, more than a third of the cohort lived in a council home. House prices rose dramatically during the 1980s and subsequently. Home ownership is lower among the 1970 cohort at age 42, and private renting more common, than it was for the generations born in 1958 and 1946 at the same age.

The vast majority of the 1970 cohort attended comprehensive secondary schools, following the slow decline in grammar schools and secondary moderns throughout the 1970s. Teacher pay was historically low, resulting in industrial action in schools between 1984-1986. By age 42, a quarter of those born in 1970 had a university degree. While this may seem low by contemporary standards, it is significantly higher than the generations born in 1946 or 1958. The greatest advances were made by women – 25 per cent of women in the 1970 cohort have university degrees, compared to just six per cent of the 1946 women.

By tracking the development of the cohort, we are also able to see the lasting effects of their learning outside of the classroom. For example, those who had regularly read for pleasure at the age of 10 had higher vocabulary scores at 42, even when socioeconomic factors were taken into account.

Social mobility, health and religion

Much debate has focused on whether relative social mobility has changed for the 1970 cohort compared to previous generations. There is certainly no evidence of an increase in relative social mobility chances for the worse off compared to the better off. More than two thirds of children from more affluent homes were in professional or managerial occupations at age 42, compared to just a quarter of those from unskilled backgrounds. Cohort members from middle-class backgrounds were more likely to say that they received help from their parents in getting a job, but this does not appear to be a key factor explaining their higher earnings and social class positions at age 42.

The 1970 cohort represents the crest of the wave of the obesity epidemic. Convenience and fast foods became more common in the 1980s, as did car ownership. People became less and less physically active. By the age of 16, the 1970 generation was significantly more overweight than the generations before them, and this has persisted into mid-life. The seeds of adult obesity are sown early. Those with at least one parent classed as obese – a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher – were just over three times more likely to be persistently overweight or obese throughout their lives than those whose parents were a healthy weight.

Religious belief declined for Generation X. At age 42, almost half did not identify with any religion. Most of the remainder said they had a Christian background.

Interestingly, there was a huge disparity in the proportion of men and women who say they believe in God and life after death – 60 per cent of the women but only 35 per cent of the men believe in life after death. Similarly, more than half (54 per cent) of the men surveyed said they were atheists or agnostics, compared to only a third (34 per cent) of the women.