The spirit of the age

The announcement by former boxing promoter Frank Maloney that he is undergoing gender reassignment was met with less hostility and more support than I (and probably he) expected. Boxing is, after all, a very macho world and transgender is probably the last frontier of sexual liberalism, the subject still causing the odd row even among liberal types. Even so, things seem to be moving in favour of social acceptance and equal rights. It took courage for someone in Maloney’s line of work to go public about a sex change but he probably got less rough treatment from the media than he would have had ten years ago.

I was reminded of this when I read Giles Wilkes’s comments on John Campbell’s biography of Roy Jenkins. More than any other politician, Jenkins symbolises the 1960s liberal attitudes which, eventually, prevailed in Britain in the subsequent decades.

Says Giles:

[H]e achieved an astonishing amount in a short time in the Home Office In less than two years he helped end flogging in prisons, legalise homosexuality and abortion, end theatre censorship, and bring in a Race Relations bill. The latter is despite the fact that both the TUC and CBI opposed Jenkins’ measures to improve racial equality. The author explains the former simply with “there was still a lot of casual racism in the workplace”. I still don’t understand it.

I do but then, I’m nearly a decade older than Giles. In the 1960s and 70s, a lot of the trade union left wasn’t all that liberal. It fought for workers’ rights. It was ambivalent, or sometimes hostile, to claims for equality based on anything else. Casual racism didn’t only take the form of personal abuse; it was prevalent in the language people used. A sentence like, “I’ve been working like a black and now they’re trying to jew me out of my overtime pay” would have passed without comment in many 70s workplaces. People would have been bemused by the suggestion that someone might take offence.

The change in how people view sexism, sexuality and racism has been the biggest shift in attitudes I have seen in my lifetime. The decline in smoking and drink driving run them pretty close but they had the terror of cancer and driving bans to back them up.

Sure, the law has played its part. Nowadays, a manager couldn’t tell another to “get his typing done by the wog” and win the resulting tribunal case. He could get away with it in 1985 but he probably couldn’t now.

The law has criminalised the worst of racism and sexism but social disapproval has done its bit too. Much of what used to be common racist language has been banished to quiet pub corners and people’s front rooms. It’s not allowed out in public any more. Rather like persistent drink-driving, it’s something only diehards of a certain age do.

What makes attitudes change is a subject that has perplexed social scientists for years. A report by Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) in 2010 explained:

Changes in attitudes across time are considered to be the result of three general processes: generation (or cohort) replacement, life-cycle (or age), and period effects.

I’ve always thought the ‘one funeral at a time’ effect, where people holding the old views gradually die off, taking their attitudes and prejudices with them, was a little pessimistic. After all, I’ve changed my mind about stuff over the years so I’m sure other people must do too.

There’s some fascinating research from IpsosMORI on this. Looking back through the British Social Attitudes survey they have mapped the changing social attitudes of age cohorts over time. That people get more conservative as they get older is one of those things that ‘everyone knows’ – except that they don’t, at least, not where attitudes to things like gender and sexuality are concerned.

Among all generations, even those born before the Second World War, attitudes towards gender roles and sexuality have become more liberal.



Attitudes to the death penalty, Roy Jenkins’s other signature policy, are also moving in the direction he would have liked.


Of course, somewhere around fifty percent of the population still holds small c conservative views on these questions but, slowly, attitudes across the generations seem to be changing.

Some of the other charts, like support for the welfare state and monarchy, might provide less comfort for those on the liberal-left but almost all of them show similar patterns over time across the generations. So, for example, if support for the monarchy or NHS falls for a few years, it tends to do so among all generations. This suggests that politicians, commentators and the news may have more effect on people than they like to think.



There is, then, an observable difference between generations but also evidence that the changes follow a similar pattern. The old are generally more conservative than the young but they get more liberal at the same rate. The most interesting thing about these charts is that the patterns track each other and show people changing their minds in similar patterns. So society is getting less homophobic not just because homophobes are dying off but because people who once thought being gay was wrong have changed their minds.

I’d be fascinated to see something similar for attitudes in the workplace. How have the attitudes of generational cohorts shifted over time? As I’ve said before, I’m sceptical about the attempt to categorise generational attitudes to work and I’ve yet to see any convincing evidence for it. We are constantly (to the point of tedium) being told that Generation Y want more freedom, more flexible working, less hierarchy and all that but I wonder if this is really a generational difference or just a symptom of wider changing attitudes. Just as Boomers and GenXers have become more liberal over the years, have they also decided that they too want a more autonomous and less deferential working environment?

A couple of years ago, I was at a conference where a Millennial told us oldies about all the things that Millennials want from work. I replied that I, as someone on the outer suburbs of GenX, I wanted those things too. I don’t think I’m unusual in that. I think many of us have changed what we want from the workplace. I know people who had a command and control approach 20 years ago who now have very different views about managing people. They are not trying to be down with GenY, daddio, they have just changed their minds about what works.

It’s not just funerals and retirements that change attitudes. The process by which whole societies change their minds about things is much more interesting than that. Generational attitudes waver and people move with the times. The word zeitgeist translates as spirit of the age. That spirit moves in mysterious ways.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The spirit of the age

  1. Chris Dillow says:

    I agree with all this, but here are two quibbles:
    1. I wonder who the homophobes were in the 70s. Back then, some of the most popular men on TV were Larry Grayson, Danny LaRue and Liberace. They were especially loved by older working class women. (There was a homophobic attack here in Oakham the other day, implying that one or two of my neighbours in this affluent town are more homophobic than my nan was in the 70s.)
    2. Should we trust survey evidence entirely? Could it be that people tell surveyers what they want to hear? Young people are expected to be tolerant, so say they are, whereas older ones didn’t face that pressure and so are less prone to misrepresent their beliefs.

    • Rick says:

      Good challenge Chris. There may be something in what you say about the liberalism of the young. Even young people are more conformist than they like to make out. If you’ve grown up being told not to say racist and homophobic things, you might be more likely to tell a survey you don’t, even if you do.

      On your first point, it’s difficult to say whether homophobic crime is worse now than in the 70s because back then, fewer attacks were labelled homophobic even when they were. I’m afraid some of my data on this is of the I Met A Man variety. I know people who used to say “queer” and “nigger” in the 1980s who now, genuinely, think it’s wrong to do so. A few months ago, I even listened to one of them explaining why the n-word is so much worse than other insults. I know people who are a lot less racist and homophobic than they used to be 20 years ago. The MORI data seems to suggest they may be representative of a trend.

  2. Chris Dillow says:

    You’re certainly right that the language has changed. But does language equate to behaviour? Eg the arts world uses more PC language than investment banking & football clubs – but this doesn’t equate to more diverse employees.

  3. Dave Timoney says:

    Conformity does not vary with age and the split between conformists (the vast majority) and non-conformists has been consistent over time (this has been proven by many experiments: Asch, Milgram, Stanford Prison etc). This means that the public tends to reflect “public opinion”, which is not a circular argument as the latter is a construct – i.e. normative instruction. OAPs are not biting their tongues in public and reverting to Catherine Tate’s nan in private. They have internalised the new rules.

    The homophobes in the 1970s were kids in playgrounds calling anyone short of an alpha-male a “poof”. They have now grown up and are pillars of the community. Some of them are even gay. And married. The point about Liberace et al is that they were an unthreatening parody of homosexuality, with an implicit message that the gay life was fabulous but ultimately tragic and empty (better settle for a nice cup of tea). Their biggest critics were Gay Libbers, not homophobes.

  4. Pingback: Interesting elsewhere – 9 September 2014 | Public Strategist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s