1970 vs 2010: Forty years when we got older, richer and fatter

You smoked heavily. You missed out on university. You didn’t take foreign holidays. You didn’t have a car. You had a job in a factory. And you were likely to die at 68.

It sounds like a pretty grim picture nowadays, but hold on a minute. That was probably you – at least if you were a man – 40 years ago.

If you were a woman back in 1970, much of that catalogue might have applied to you too, and in addition, you were married and would have had your first baby before you were 25, and you were spending a fifth of the household income on food (whereas these days, your biggest expenditure will be on energy bills, probably for all those gadgets you own).

Such are the pictures painted by Social Trends 40, the 40th anniversary of the annual social report published by the Office for National Statistics.

It shows that during the course of four decades, our lives, while similar in broad outline, have changed in a myriad subtle ways: we are living longer, being educated for longer, being alone more, taking more holidays and are healthier in some ways (fewer of us smoke) but are less healthy in others (more of us are obese).

Life expectancy is perhaps the most notable single change. In 1970, when Edward Heath had just become Prime Minister and The Beatles were breaking up, for men it was 68.7 years and for women it was 75 years; 40 years on, these figures have shifted substantially. Male life expectancy is now 77.8 years, and for women it is 81.9 years. Doubtless the fall in heavy smoking has played a part in that. In 1974, 24 per cent of men and 13 per cent of women in Britain who smoked regularly were classed as heavy smokers, whereas in 2008 the figures were 7 per cent of men and only one in 20 women.

But not all of us have become more healthy as the years have gone by: many of us have piled on the pounds. Although figures recording obesity only go back 15 years, there is a clear increasing trend.

In 1994, 15.7 per cent of people had a body mass index of 30 or more, classifying them as obese, but that figure now stands at 24.5 per cent

Higher education is another area where there are significant differences. In the academic year 1970/71, there were 621,000 students in higher education; while in 2007/08 there were 2.5 million students in higher education in the UK.

The student lifestyle – or at least, independent living – has continued for longer, and the proportion of one-person households in Britain has risen from 18 per cent of all households in 1971 to 29 per cent in 2009.

This means that people are taking longer to settle down, a trend which is also visible in women’s child-bearing ages: in 1971, 47 per cent of babies born in England and Wales had mothers who were under 25, but by 2008 that figure had dropped to 25 per cent.

We have also moved away from factory work. In 1978, the manufacturing sector accounted for nearly three in 10 (28.5 per cent) jobs around the UK, but this had fallen by 2009 to one in 10 (10 per cent), the lowest proportion since records began.

We are also much more mobile. In 1970, nearly half (48 per cent) of all households in Britain did not have the regular use of a car, while by 2008 that figure had fallen to just over a fifth (22 per cent).

Four decades ago, UK residents made 6.7 million holiday trips abroad, but by 2008 that figure was 45.5 million – although Spain and France are still overwhelmingly the most popular destinations for British holidaymakers. In 1981 the two countries accounted for 49 per cent of all destinations; by 2008 that had fallen, but by only a relatively small amount to 44 per cent.

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