Britain’s happiest couples are married but childless and less than five years into their relationship, a major new national survey of family life will reveal tomorrow.
Understanding Society, a £49m social research project, which describes its aim as “nothing less than the creation of a living laboratory of British life”, is being billed as one of the most comprehensive investigations ever conducted into the life of the nation.
The study has been commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council and will follow the lives of 40,000 households, interviewing 100,000 individuals of all ages, for at least the next 20 years. The data will be gathered every year in face-to-face interviews and made available to government departments, social policy units and academic researchers.
Professor Nick Buck, director of the Understanding Society Project, believes it could dramatically change the way we understand the nation. “We are collecting a much richer set of data than the national census, for instance, and I think this is going to lead to a major change in the way social research is performed, to understand how individual well-being and happiness is developed, and how behaviour impacts on later outcomes.”
Tomorrow’s publication of its first findings provides a picture of recession Britain, through the eyes of 14,000 households in 2009 – a smaller sample than will be surveyed once the project hits its stride. Out of 34,503 individuals surveyed, 2,163 children aged between 10 and 15 gave interviews.
According to the data gathered so far, happiness with one’s partner declines with the duration of the union and with a person’s age. Marriages are happier than cohabiting unions, a trend that rises for better-educated people. In turn, children are happier with their family situation if their parents are happy.
The happiest relationships are those less than five years in duration, between two people educated to degree level, who have no children and where the man is employed.
The decline in happiness is steeper for women than men. Overall, older people are less happy in their relationships.
Among men, unemployment brings with it lower levels of happiness with their partner, although income appears to be unrelated to relationship happiness among men and is only mildly important for women.
Of the young, 60% are “completely satisfied” with their family situation and 70% are very satisfied with their lives. The survey’s authors observe: “Compared with their peers in other countries, children in the UK rank extremely low on life satisfaction.” Gundi Knies, who carried out the research, insists the two sets of findings are not contradictory.
But her research also concludes that neither material wealth nor poverty have a bearing on children’s life satisfaction.
Not living with both natural parents has a greater negative impact on a young person’s life satisfaction than their material situation. But children are more satisfied with their lives the fewer other children live in their household.
Disturbingly, the research suggests that bullying begins in the home, with more than half of all siblings (54%) being involved in bullying – a higher rate than has been reported in the US, Israel or Italy. A third of all adolescents both bully their siblings and are the victims of bullying by their siblings. Fewer children in Wales (40%) than in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland bully siblings.
Of adolescents, 12% reported being bullied at school and there are no differences between boys and girls in victimisation. Children from step families are bullied slightly more often. Bullying at school has a more detrimental effect on a child than bullying at home.
But children who are bullied at school and at home are 14 times more likely to report severe behavioural problems, and 10 times more likely to be unhappy, than those not bullied at all.
The report unveils “surprisingly high levels of optimism among the unemployed” with almost two-thirds expecting their financial situation to improve in the next year. The most common single household income was £1,000 per month. About one household in six is in poverty, with poverty rates higher than average for pensioners and for families with children; 64% of households with more than four children and 47% of lone-parent households suffer poverty. The authors note that in the longer term the survey will show how far poverty in childhood is predictive of continued poverty among adults.
Neighbouring – a concept that contains elements of David Cameron’s “big society” project, by asking questions about willingness to volunteer – produced intriguing variations. The English score lowest and the Welsh highest. The Scottish have below-average scores on social expenditure, while the Northern Irish have the highest scores on trust, suggesting high levels of social cohesion and the least interest in politics.
The survey also asks how well we sleep at night, because of its relevance to public health policy. One in 10 people reports taking sleeping medication on three or more nights a week and married people, the employed and self-employed report the best sleep.
A quarter of the population living in the most deprived areas of England are non-white, compared with 9% in the least deprived areas. The more highly educated a person is, the less likely they are to stop and talk to neighbours and their sense of community is lower. Sixty per cent believe, if things continue on their current course, we will soon experience a major environmental disaster, but only 50% are prepared to pay more for environmentally friendly products.