BSA35: A Greatly Divided and United Britain: British Social Attitudes

A Greatly Divided and United Britain

With the Brexit process far from concluded and new global challenges creating future uncertainties, this year’s British Social Attitudes survey finds a country that is at the same time growing together and growing apart.  

The report, carried out by the National Centre for Social Research, examines how the people of Britain view the challenges the country faces and exposes new divides in attitudes to politics, gender, our work, welfare and climate change. 

Yet despite these divides, Brits are in many ways standing together:  we trust each other more than ever, we want the government to look after those who most need help, the youngest and oldest generations are increasingly in agreement on some social issues, and people in England are less likely to describe themselves as “English not British”.  

Brexit may have made us a country divided, but in many ways we are more united in our attitudes than before.


Work and welfare

As the shape of the labour market changes, a clear majority favour the government helping those who need it most.  70% think the government should top up wages of low earning single parents, 58% think they should top up the wages of low earning working couples with children and 71% want the minimum wage increased.  Over half of people (56%) think that cutting welfare benefits would damage too many people's lives. Support for an increase to unemployment benefits is also the highest it has been for 15 years, with 20% saying the government should spend more.

There are vivid age divides here, with particularly strong support among young people aged 18 to 25 for topping up wages, with 67% wanting the government to top up low earning working parents wages, compared with 46% of respondents over the age of 65.  79% of 18 to 25 year olds want low earning single parent wages to be topped up, against 57% of those over the age of 65.

On the whole Brits accept that the robots are coming but are not worried about the threat automation could pose to their own jobs. 75% of respondents believe that machines or computers will be doing the jobs of humans within a decade, but only 10% of workers think this poses a threat to their own job. Income impacts on levels of concern, with 6% of workers in the highest income quartile saying they are worried that their jobs could be threatened, compared with 16% workers in the lowest income quartile. Younger people display the least concern, despite facing the reality of a labour market evolving at pace in response to technology.



Our findings point to widespread agreement on a number of gender issues.  93% of Brits say sexist online bullying towards women is wrong, and 85% say the same about sexist online bullying of men. Researchers asked if it is acceptable for a man to make uninvited comments about a woman’s appearance in the street.  Just 8% of the population think it is rarely or never wrong for a stranger in the street to tell a woman that she “looks gorgeous today”.  57% say it is always or usually wrong and 27% think these comments are sometimes wrong.

A clear age divide is present in views on whether such comments are acceptable- 61% of people aged 18 to 34, compared with 49% of people aged 65 or over, think this behaviour is wrong. Men are more likely than women to say this. 

72% of Brits disagree with the view that “it is a man’s job to earn money and a woman’s job to look after the home and family”, up from 58% in 2008.  A breakdown of these figures reveals clear age and education divides.  People aged 18 to 34 years (75%) and graduates (82%) are more likely than those aged 65 to 74 (67%), 75 or over (47%), and those with no formal qualifications (55%), to disagree with the above statement. 

Despite these differences in opinion by age and education, in some instances the gap between generations is narrowing at an accelerating rate. The gap between young and old in their views on gender roles has reduced considerably since the early 1990s; in 1991 just 11% of those aged 75 and over disagreed with the view that men should be breadwinners and women homemakers, compared with 67% of people aged 18 to 34 years. By contrast, in 2017 47% of those aged 75 and over say this, compared with 75% of 18 to 34 year-olds.  So, while there are gaps between age and education, this divide is not ever present, or even growing. 

Researchers questioned people about whether a mother should stay at home with her family and found that 33% of Brits think mothers of pre-school age children should stay at home.  This figure remains unchanged over the last five years, against a backdrop of government initiatives to help working families, such as shared parental leave and improved childcare provision. 38% of Brits think these mothers should work part time, down from 43% in 2012. 7% think full time is the best option compared with 5% in 2012.   Those with no formal qualifications are twice as likely as graduates to say that a mother of a pre-school child should stay at home.  49% of those aged 75 or over think mothers of pre-school children should stay at home, against 30% of those aged 18 to 34.



Brexit has deepened age and education divides in views of Britain’s membership of the EU. 49% of people aged 55 or over and 54% of those with no formal qualifications want to leave the EU, compared with 23% of those aged 18 to 34 and 19% of graduates.

Despite these divides the EU referendum hasn’t led to a rise in English nationalism.  13% of people in England describe themselves as English, not British- the lowest level since 1997. The most popular category remains “Equally English and British” at 41%.

The 2017 General Election saw the largest ever age divide in British electoral politics.  Labour secured 62% of the votes of 18 to 34 year-olds against 22% for the Conservatives.  The Conservatives won 55% of voters aged 65 or over compared with 30% for Labour. The educational divide was not quite as pronounced, but Labour for the first time was more popular amongst those with degrees than those with no formal qualifications.


Climate change

93% of Brits believe that the world’s climate is definitely or probably changing.  However, 25% of people are very or extremely worried about climate change.  45% are only somewhat worried, and 28% are either not very or at all worried about it. 

31% of 18 to 34 year olds are very or extremely worried about climate change compared with 19% of over 65s.  35% of graduates are very or extremely worried about climate change compared with 20% of those with no qualifications.  Despite the young and educated being most worried about climate change, those aged 18 to 34 are less likely to report doing things to save energy. 




Despite our divides we are more trusting of each other.  54% of Brits believe that people can be trusted, the highest level since 1998 which stood at 47%. People with degrees (64%) and in managerial or professional social classes (63%) are more likely than those with few or any formal qualifications (42%), or in routine or manual jobs (41%), to say that on the whole they think other people can be trusted. The research also finds that higher social trust is associated with having a larger social network.


Roger Harding, Head of Public Attitudes for the National Centre for Social Research, says: “Despite our internal battles over Brexit, our trust in each other is at the highest level in nearly two decades. In these times of economic uncertainty we want the government to protect families on low wages.

“There is little mistaking how politically divided we are between the young and more formally educated who want a close relationship with the EU and see more benefits in immigration, and older people and those with few qualifications who take the complete opposite view. But despite all the talk of divides, the majority of us want more action on low pay and fear the damage on people's lives of any further benefit cuts.

The proportion of people in England who see themselves as English and not British is at the lowest level in two decades. Commentators have talked about a surge in English nationalism due to Brexit, but that’s not obvious from these numbers.  It remains to be seen if the World Cup brings out a fresh wave of English patriotism.

 “The EU vote has left us politically divided in new ways and meant in the election that the Conservatives and Labour picked up voters they would traditionally expect would be voting the other way. It will be a struggle for both parties to hold their new voter blocs together, and an extremely difficult task to unite the country behind a future EU relationship when the moment comes for decisions to replace rhetoric.

"While the Brexit challenge looms large in the national conversation, many experts deeply worry about the global threats of climate change and technology replacing jobs. Brits are far more relaxed about the effect of both.  If politicians share experts' concern, they have so far failed to communicate it to us."

Download chapter