Near-revolution in attitudes to social and moral issues, 40-year survey suggests

Attitudes towards many social and moral issues have undergone a “near-revolution” in recent decades, according to researchers behind a major survey – but more people now feel a person’s social class affects their opportunities in Britain.

Views have become much more liberal on sexuality and the role of women in the past 40 years, the British Social Attitudes report of more than 6,000 people suggested.

But when it comes to class, more than three quarters (77%) of the 2,175 surveyed last year for this section of the report said they feel a person’s social class affects their opportunities in Britain “a great deal” or “quite a lot” – up from 70% in 1983.

The proportion who said it is “very difficult” for people to move from one class to another has nearly doubled from 17% in 2005 to 32% in 2022, according to the analysis by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).

Views on poverty levels have also fluctuated, with some 71% of the 3,310 surveyed stating there was “quite a lot” of poverty in Britain in 1994, falling to 52% in 2006, and now having risen again to 69% in 2022.

Attitudes towards traditional gender roles have changed, but a fifth of the 2,326 people asked last year still said they believed a pre-school child would be likely to suffer if their mother worked – down from 46% in 1989.

Some 9% of people asked said they agreed that “a man’s job is to earn money, a woman’s job is to look after the home and family”, down from 48% in 1987.

More than three quarters (76%) of 1,063 people surveyed said tasks such as washing and ironing should be shared equally within mixed sex couples – down from 22% in 1984.

But among people currently in such relationships, 65% report that the washing and ironing are mainly done by the woman, while just 27% say it is shared equally.

Almost a quarter (24%) of 2,239 people surveyed agreed that people who want children should get married, a steep drop from 70% in 1989.

Pre-marital sex is seen as acceptable by 78% of the 2,239 people surveyed, up from 42% in 1983.

The proportion of people who felt being unfaithful to a husband or wife is “always wrong” has changed very little, at 57% now compared with 58% in 1983.

While attitudes to same-sex relationships have improved, 9% of the more than 2,000 people surveyed still said such relationships were “always wrong”, down from half of people who said this in 1983.

While there is now more support for women when it comes to abortion – with 95% of 2,202 people saying they are in favour when the woman’s health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy, this drops to (76%) when the situation presented is that a woman decides on her own that she does not want to have a child, and 72% if it is a couple who cannot afford any more children.

The 76% saying the law should allow an abortion if the woman decided on her own that she does not want to have the child has risen from 37% in 1983.

Gillian Prior, deputy chief executive at NatCen said: “Changes in moral attitudes undoubtedly constitute the greatest substantive shift in society’s thinking over the past four decades.

“Attitudes towards families, sexual relations and abortion are often very different now from what they were 40 years ago. That said, we still remain somewhat divided on some of these issues, such as on abortion when there is no concern about the health of either the mother or the baby.”

Sir John Curtice, senior research fellow at NatCen said: “The vast social changes that Britain has witnessed over the last 40 years have been accompanied by a near-revolution in attitudes towards many social and moral issues, including sexuality and the role of women.

“In contrast, although they have fluctuated up and down in response to changing political and economic circumstances, attitudes towards inequality and the economic role of the state are still not that different from those of 40 years ago. The debate about these subjects still has a familiar ring to it.”

The BSA report had respondents from Great Britain – England, Wales and Scotland – only.