New insights into UK society today from longitudinal research

10 Nov 2016 12:57 PM

Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study, has published its fifth annual report highlighting some of the new topical policy-relevant research conducted recently using data from the annual survey which began in 2009 with around 100,000 individuals from 40,000 households.

To be launched at the ESRC Festival of Social Science event 'Education for all: looking beyond the classroom', Insights 2016 features research and policy analysis from a wide range of social scientists and policy thinkers addressing some of the major issues of the day, using data from Understanding Society. 

Understanding Society is an innovative world-leading study about 21st century UK life and how it is changing over time, led by a team of experts at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex.

It captures important information about social and economic circumstances, attitudes and behaviours and the health of the same people living in households across over 5,000 postcodes in the UK every year. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and a consortium of government departments and devolved nations, Understanding Society is a significant resource for providing important evidence on policy issues.  

The findings published in Insights 2016 include:

Education findings 

  • The gap between rich and poor is greater in areas with grammar schools, than those with comprehensive-only school systems, according to a new study by Professor Simon Burgess at the University of Bristol.
  • The education and migration history of parents has a significant impact on the performance of children of migrants in primary school at age 11 (Key Stage 2) – but it’s not the only factor – other factors also affect their exam results, according to a new study by Dr Nicole Martin at the University of Essex.
  • Researchers at the London School of Economics looked at the impact of superfast broadband to see if that was making a difference to how school children use the internet for their learning at home. Neither attainment nor the numbers of hours of study are affected by the rollout of faster broadband. They found jumps in the available broadband speed have no significant effect on student time spent online, time spent doing homework or the likelihood of using online resources for homework.

Health and employment findings

  • The state of your health matters greatly to your chances of being in work, but poor mental health stands out as a key health factor in employment outcomes, more than poor physical health, according to a new study by Professor Don Webber from the University of the West of England. Having higher qualifications lessens the impact of poor health but does not offer full employment protection.
  • Researchers from the University of York found women are almost twice more likely than men to leave a job after recovering from an acute health shock such as cancer or a heart attack. Older and higher educated women are more likely to leave jobs as they can afford to do so. 

Family findings

  • An unemployed dad means you are not only more likely to be unemployed as a young adult but also more likely to be in lower pay, have lower job satisfaction, and work fewer hours when you do get a job, according to Wouter Zwysen from the University of Essex.  
  • In an ageing society, grown-up children are responding well to supporting their elderly parent’s care or mobility needs while they can live independently in the community, according to research by Professor John Ermisch at the University of Oxford, but they can’t help where severe difficulties require daily care.

Devolution findings

  • Understanding Society data allows policymakers and academics to examine how people react to new policies introduced in individual home nations and compare this to behaviour in the other nations and regions across the UK to see if that makes any difference. Raj Patel, Understanding Society Impact Fellow, looks at recent research on how the 5p plastic carrier bag charge, first introduced in Wales, influenced people’s wider environmental attitudes and behaviours. The research found that it only led to a small increase in pro-environmental behaviour in Wales, but there was a slightly bigger increase in green behaviour in England and the rest of the UK at the same time - even without the introduction of the bag charge. 

Professor Michaela Benzeval, Director of Understanding Society said: "Insights is just a sample of some of the fascinating research being conducted using Understanding Society, by policy analysts here in the UK and by academics worldwide. By interviewing the same people year after year we can really see how the big political issues of the day are having an impact on lives and behaviours of individuals, and what matters to them. This evidence is crucial to effective policy making, for business and industry, and for the organisations, charities, councils and governments supporting, delivering and improving our services today."

Further information

  • Louise Cullen, ISER Communications Manager
    Telephone: 07771 792393

Notes for editors

  1. Download a copy of Insights 2016 from the Understanding Society website or for a paper copy please email with 'Insights Postal Request' as the subject.
  2. The Understanding Society Insights 2016 report will be launched on 10 November 2016 as a special debate on education, a key theme of the report. The event, from 16.00 to 19.00, will be held at Hamilton House, Mabledon Place, Kings Cross, London WC1H 9BD. To attend please email
  3. The event is part of the 14th annual Festival of Social Science, taking place from 5-12 November 2016, with more than 250 free events nationwide. Run by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Festival provides an opportunity for anyone to meet with some of the country’s leading social scientists and discover, discuss and debate the role that research plays in everyday life. A full programme is available online. You can also join the discussion on Twitter using #esrcfestival.
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. We also develop and train the UK's future social scientists. Our research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government