Generations Apart

by Rachel Thomson

Interesting couple of days at the BBC recording a radio programme called Generations Apart that will be broadcast on Radio 4 in January. The programme is following two cohorts, one born in 1946 and another in 1996. The first of the programmes juxtaposes  experiences of work – and what a contrast there is. In the mid 1960’s there was a thriving demand for unskilled and semi-skilled labour and a boggling 70% of  young people left school at the minimum school leaving age and walked straight into work. The demand for labour outstripped supply and young people moved easily between jobs. Young male school leavers had expectations of  a ‘job for life’ and their ability to earn a ‘family wage’ enabled them to set up home and support dependents while in their 20s. Young women were generally expected to leave work when they married and became mothers – which at the time were pretty much synonymous.

Over a period 40 years life has transformed. Most significantly perhaps has been the wholesale  restructuring of the economy – characterised by sociologists as ‘de-industrialisation’- with the replacement of manufacturing with service industries and the disappearance of the family wage. It now takes two wages to support a family and 70% of mothers are in employment.

And what have these changes meant for young people? Well there is no longer a youth labour market and young people are encouraged to stay on in education to become the highly skilled workers demanded by the ‘knowledge economy’. In 1962 only 4% of the relevant age group went to university, in the early 1980sthe proportion was still only 13% – rising rapidly to the current levels of 46%.

In the second programme we chart changes in values and attitudes associated with the move of women into work and the opening of higher education to girls. Most young women now have expectations of an education and a career and this in turn reshapes the formation of families – with later parenthood and extended dependence on parents. Where young women leave school without qualifications the picture is very different – with early motherhood still the norm – sometimes providing the impetus to get back into education and work ‘for the kids’. One of the biggest changes relates to stigma of sex before marriage and what used to be called ‘ illegitimacy’. In the early 60s only 1:6 couple cohabited and just 7% of births were outside marriage. In 2010 1:6 cohabit and 47% of births are out of wedlock.

The overall picture that emerges of changes between the two generations is one of increasing freedom, the appearance of choice, but also stagnating social mobility and entrenched social inequalities.  The post war consensus of full employment and a secure welfare state is well and truly gone, and as risks are privatised and made the responsibility of families and individuals we see the rise of whole family strategies for cooperation and survival – which is particularly hard for those without family resources behind them.

The programmes will be broadcast in January, but form part of a major longitudinal series, with regular follow-ups over time.  To find out more see


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