Students Staff

28 February 2011

The first steps to Understanding Society

Colchester Campus

Understanding Society: Initial Findings front cover

The first findings from the world’s largest study of households are now published. The Understanding Society publication reveals a comprehensive snap shot of UK households. Starting in 2009, the year when Britain officially entered recession for the first time since 1991 and the Copenhagen climate summit ended in more questions than answers, the study offers an unprecedented insight into 40,000 UK households as they respond to regional, national and international change.

The publication offers a window into British society in the 21st century. With data on our working lives, relationships, health, finances and neighbourhoods this first volume gives an early taste of the social landscape of the UK as the country fell into the deepest recession for 60 years.

Nick Buck, Director of Understanding Society said: “Although these are first findings, they cover a wide range of areas around people’s lives and experiences. The purpose of the volume is not only to present and share these findings, but more importantly they show the future potential of the study. We look forward to demonstrating that potential even more clearly once Understanding Society has collected more data over the coming years.”

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, agrees: “Social and economic research tells us a huge amount about the world around us. This high-quality study has looked at people of all ages and backgrounds and given us insights into health, wealth and happiness. The findings will inform not only individual life choices but also government policy, directing efforts towards those who need it most.”

Key findings from this early research include:

Sibling bullying

  • more than half of all siblings (54 per cent) were involved in bullying in one form or another which is higher than has been reported in the USA, Israel or Italy using similar measures
  • sibling bullying is frequent and a third (33.6 per cent) of all adolescents both bully their siblings and are the victims of bullying at the hand of their siblings

Employment status and well-being

  •  the unemployed and the economically inactive have the lowest average life satisfaction 4.7 and 4.8 respectively on a 7 point scale, while those in some form of employment average 5.3 for life satisfaction
  • when accounting for other characteristics, among young people (aged less than 25), economic inactivity is associated with the highest life satisfaction (a predicted life satisfaction of 5.5), followed by unemployment (5.4) and full-time work (5.3). Being unemployed has no impact on the mental wellbeing among young people, all else being equal

Environment and behaviour

  • people with degrees are 25 per cent more likely, on average, than people with no education qualifications to adopt pro-environmental behaviours, at least in terms of paying more for environmentally-friendly products. Yet, they are less likely to turn the TV off overnight, to switch off lights in unused rooms and to use public transport rather than travel by car

Relationships between partners

  • for both men and women, happiness declines with the duration of the relationship, with the decline being steeper for women. It is also the case that older people are less happy in their relationships than younger people
  • childless couples are happiest with their relationships and those with a pre-school child are least happy, though happiness increases with the age of the youngest child


  • the most common single household income was only £1,000 per month
  • about one household in six is in poverty. As expected, poverty rates are higher than average for pensioners, and for families with children: 23 per cent of pensioner households are poor as are 20 per cent of households with children

The study run by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex will follow 40,000 households year by year and asks questions about a wide spectrum of areas related to working and personal lives.

The first findings are published online. Individual chapters and a summary document are also available to download.


ISER Press Office:

Chris Garrington (Tel: 07546 11 76 73, email:

ESRC Press Office:

Danielle Moore (Tel: 01793 413122, email: )

Jeanine Woolley (Tel: 01793 413119, email: )

(Out of office hours number, Tel: 07554333336)


1. Understanding Society is a world leading study of the socio-economic circumstances in 40,000 British households. The study allows for deeper analysis of a wide range of sections of the population as they respond to regional, national and international change. Understanding Society will greatly enhance our insight into the pathways that influence peoples longer term occupational trajectories; their health and well-being, their financial circumstances and personal relationships. Understanding Society also breaks new ground with its interdisciplinary focus. The study will capture biomedical data on 20,000 participants and place this alongside rich social histories, helping us weigh the extent to which people's environment influences their health.

2. Understanding Society has been commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The Research Team is led by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex. The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) delivers the Study.

3. The ESRC have contributed £27 million towards the funding of Understanding Society, and have successfully secured a total of £19.4 million from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Large Facilities Capital Fund. A further £2.61 million has been secured from a consortium of Government Departments. This funding will support the first five waves of the study until 2015. It is envisaged that the study will continue for up to 20 years.

4. The ESRC is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2010/11 is £218 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at

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