How the UK has changed during the Queen's 70-year reign

·6-min read

It is hard to think of another monarch who ruled over quite so much social, cultural and economic change as Queen Elizabeth II.

In her 70-year reign, the UK was utterly transformed and this might have been what has made her passing quite so significant and impactful for so many people, why even those who never considered themselves monarchists have found themselves unexpectedly touched.

Human beings are hard-wired to crave stability, and in this era of constant change and flux, the Queen was a constant. A glance at historical data - showing a shift not only in our economy but also our culture, labour market and the energy system that knits us together - and you can see seismic changes. The country over which the Queen reigned was astoundingly different in 2022 than it was in 1952.

How migration and fertility rates changed the population

The best place to start is with one of the most important of all numbers: the population. During the Queen's reign, the number of people living in the UK population grew by 17 million, from just over 50 million in 1952 to just over 67 million in 2021. What's striking about this increase in population is that it happened in two stages.

In the 1950s and '60s there was a big increase in what's sometimes known as the "natural change" in the population (births minus deaths). This gives you a sense of how the UK's domestic population contributed to changes in their numbers. But that natural change slowed in the 1970s and thereafter never recovered to the levels of the '50s and '60s.

To some extent, this reflects another statistic which has changed over time: the total fertility rate, a number representing a calculated average of how many children each woman in the country gives birth to. Having started the Queen's reign at 2.2 children per woman and risen to around three in the baby boom in the 1960s, the fertility rate dropped in the 1970s and recently hit the lowest level in history: just under 1.6. Simply put: people in the UK seem to be having fewer children.

Migration is what drives the increase in population in the second half of the Queen's reign. While in the 1950s, 60s and 70s there was a net outflow of people from the UK - the "brain drain" as it's sometimes called - from the 1990s onwards the number of migrants coming into the country dramatically outweighed those leaving. Many, but not all, of these people came from the EU. It was an enormous cultural shift.

A shift in the number of men working - and the rise of office workers

Nor was it the only such shift. Consider what was happening in workplaces at the same time. The proportion of women working increased dramatically, up from around 40% in the 1950s to 74% in recent years. Places of employment became somewhat less male too, with male employment levels falling slowly from 95% to 84%.

And the types of jobs we were doing changed too. Back in 1952, around 47% of employees worked in what are known as "primary" or "secondary" sectors: farming, mining, manufacturing and construction. Yet by 2018, that had dropped to only 16%. This country, whose economy used to be all about making things, became one utterly dominated by the services sector - a nation of office workers, marketers and retailers. A nation of shopkeepers, you might even say.

That brings us to the broader question about the economy, and whether what we're talking about is a period of decline or of prosperity. The short answer is both. During the Queen's reign, we all became considerably wealthier: national income per capita (which is measured in dollars so that we can compare it to other countries) rose from $11,303 in 1952 to $38,058 in 2018. This was a serious increase in our standard of living, but other countries were increasing their standard of living even faster.

In 1952 the UK was, as measured by GDP per capita, the third-most prosperous in the Group of Seven leading industrialised economies - behind only the US and Canada. By 2018 it was sixth out of seven, with only Italy having lower income per capita (GDP is ultimately an aggregate measure of the income we all share). In other words, in absolute terms, the UK is better off; in relative terms, it has fallen down the leaderboard.

Once the world's reserve currency, the sterling became weaker and weaker

One area where decline is rather more obvious, however, is the strength of sterling. What was once the world's reserve currency has become weaker and weaker since 1952 - a consequence less of the monarch whose face was on our notes and coins than the politicians deciding economic policy. The post-war period was pockmarked by repeated devaluations as the UK struggled to attract investment and capital and rode through regular crises.

From the "pound in your pocket" devaluation of Harold Wilson in 1967 to the IMF bailout of 1976, Black Wednesday in 1992, the financial crisis of 2008 and the EU referendum, the pound dropped against most world currencies, dropping close to its lowest ever level, when measured against a basket of other exchange rates. On the one hand, a weaker currency is often a source of strength, helping countries compete with each other. On the other, it's hard not to look at the chart of the pound in recent decades and see it as anything other than a fall in sterling's comparative spending power.

A cleaner, healthier, more diverse country that is unmistakeably British

A final chart worth pondering concerns something which was discussed rather a lot in Queen Elizabeth II's final years: where we get our electricity from. Back in 1952, a staggering 96% of it came from burning coal. But as the reign went on, our reliance on this comparatively dirty fossil fuel diminished. By 2021 it was down to just 3%. And as we shifted off coal we shifted onto other fuels - most of all natural gas. By 2021, gas accounted for 41% of our power. Renewables - including wind, solar and hydroelectricity - accounted for 14% of our power, a small but growing slice of the pie.

It is just another way in which the country has changed since the 1952 coronation, when London was regularly shrouded in "pea soupers" of smog from coal fireplaces and so many people worked in industry. This is now a deindustrialised country: cleaner, healthier, longer-lived (life expectancy at birth for women is up from 67 in 1952 to 79 in 2022), more diverse and more equal.

Our quality of life may not be the best in the world, but is much, much improved on decades gone by. The country is, in all sorts of respects, a better place than when she took the throne. And different though it may be, it remains unmistakably British - though that's something far harder to reflect in a chart.