General Lifestyle Survey: 10 changes from 40 years of questions

Life in the 1970s Numerous aspects of life in the 1970s were captured by the survey

The general lifestyle survey is 40 years old. What does the first survey tell us about how life has changed?

Since 1971, the Office for National Statistics has been asking thousands of Britons about their lives. The General Household Survey shows the Britain of the 1970s was a very different country to 2011 (the latest results we have). Here are 10 ways things have changed.

Outside toilet One in 10 had outside toilets 40 years ago

1. Toilets have had an upgrade."Do you have a flush toilet?" was asked in the first survey. Most had a toilet but a significant minority had to take their business outside - 10.3% had an outdoor toilet and 1.2% had none at all. Luckily, times have changed. In 2011, toilets were still a talking point, but the question presupposed the use of an indoor toilet. "Do you have an inside flushing toilet for sole use of the household?" was the question. Nearly 100% of households said yes - 99.7% - while 0.2% said they had shared use. Only 0.1% don't have an indoor flushing toilet.

2. The head of a household was always a man. In 1971 the survey asked people to identify the "HOH" - Head of Household - and the "Housewife" - because at the time, the traditional "bread winner" was assumed to be male. The terminology did not change until 2000, when HOH was replaced by Household Reference Person. This is the person who earns the most in the household, regardless of gender. If earnings are the same, the eldest is chosen.

3. How to talk about women. In 1971 the survey set aside some questions "to the housewife only". In the health section, a question asked: "Did anyone outside your household give you any extra help with the housework or shopping because you were ill?" from 1971 to 1974. Today the notion of a housewife would prompt angry complaints from working women. The term "housewife" which was defined as "the person in the household responsible for most of the domestic duties" disappeared from the survey entirely from 1981.

A housewife supermarket shopping in 1972

4. Hot running water was not a foregone conclusion. The 1971 survey considered how many households had a bath in the property. A sign of the times is that showers were not considered. The 1971 survey found that 9% of people did not have a bath (91% did). As with toilets, nearly 100% of households have either a bath or a shower now.

A glamorous 1970s bathroom

Start Quote

Generally, interviewers are asked to code as 'coloured' all those people who are not, in their estimation, 'white'”

End Quote From the 1971 lifestyle survey

5. Coloured was an acceptable racial term in 1971 and included in the survey. Today it is considered unacceptable. Now, there is an array of terms for defining people's ethnic origin. But in the early 1970s, Britain was still a very white country. Only 1.7% of the sample were marked "coloured" by the researchers visiting the sample group in 1971. The term was last used in 1986. Today, the ONS says the survey does not report ethnicity, but the 2011 Census found that 7.5% were Asian/Asian British, 3.3% were Black/African/Caribbean/Black British and 2.2% were from mixed/ multiple ethnic groups.

6. Smoking when pregnant seems not to have been as important an issue 40 years ago. Figures on smoking were collected in 1974. But the question of women smoking while pregnant was not asked. Now it is deemed a serious health risk for the baby and the information is collected. The survey did not start analysing pregnancy smoking figures until 2010. In 2011, women aged between 16-49 where asked whether or not they were pregnant at the time of the survey. It found 8% of pregnant women were smokers, compared with 23% of women who were not pregnant or unsure if they were pregnant. Pregnant women were also more likely to be ex-smokers (34% compared with 17%), suggesting many women give up smoking when pregnant.

Smoking during pregnancy

7. Co-habiting - unmarried couples living together - has become much more common. Questions on cohabitation weren't introduced to the survey until 1979, and then only to women aged 18-49. The cohabiting option was first introduced into the main household information section in 1986. Between 1979 and 2011 the percentage of women who were cohabiting tripled, from 11% in 1979 to 34% in 2011.

8. Telephones are everywhere. But they weren't in 1971. The survey first asked how many households had a telephone in 1972, when less than half - 42% - had one. Now pretty much all households have either a landline or mobile phone. Mobile phones were first asked about separately in 2000. Then 58% of households contained at least one person with a mobile phone. Today 86% do.

9. Washing machines too. Nearly everyone has one today. But in 1972 laundrettes still had a large potential customer base - 34% of people did not have a washing machine. Today just 4% do not have one.

London commuters in the 1970s

10. Some things don't change. Even in the internet age, the survey is still carried out face to face. The only difference is interviewers use laptops rather than pencil and paper. In 1971, 12,000 people were surveyed. Today it is 8,000, a combination of fewer being asked and a smaller proportion agreeing to be questioned.

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.