The Up Series – Britain’s Best Loved Longitudinal Study

From 7 Up to 63 Up

The Up Series has followed the lives of fourteen children since 1964, and it is still going today, with 11 respondents still actively involved in the project.

The original 7 Up was broadcast in 1964 and featured the children talking about their hopes and aspirations for the future. Since then, the cameras have returned every seven years to document the changes in the lives of the respondents, up until the most recent, ‘63 Up’, which aired in 2019 on Brit Box.

The Director of the series is Michael Apsted, and one of things he was interested in testing was whether children’s characters were ‘set’ by the age of seven – based on a famous quote/ theory of Aristotle –

‘Give me the child at seven, and I will show the man’ – implying that by seven, a child’s character is pretty much set by that age.

Apsted was also interested in the extent to which social class background determined the future life-chances of the children, and the documentary selected children from extreme ends of the social class spectrum – Tony, for example is a classic working class London East Ender, who can’t sit still in school in the first episode and is talking about how important fighting is, while Andrew is attending a private boarding school, and at age seven already knows the college at Cambridge he wants to go to and that he intends to be lawyer.

The documentary series has a strong focus on personal life-histories, and every seven years, the respondents have  been asked why they made certain decisions and how they coped with life’s up and downs, especially during the previous seven years.

The latest series sees the respondents getting very reflective of their ‘adult lives’ now that they are in or approaching retirement.

63 Up is split into three parts, three hours long in total, with in depth-semi-structured interviews with all the remaining participants. Besides their life-histories, you get to see the close relationships that have built up between the director and the respondents, which is something only possible with a relatively small-scale longitudinal study such as this.

Michael Apsted: Director of 63 UP

If you want to watch the whole thing, you’ll need to subscribe to BritBox. There are some playlists on YouTube, but IMO it’s worth paying the subscription for a month just for this (or if it’s yer first time, not paying because you can cancel after the first free trial month!)

Seven Up: Relevance to A-level Sociology

  • The most obvious link is to research methods, with this as a pretty interesting example of a longitudinal study, but it also shows other methods – namely semi-structured interviews and also ‘Life Histories’.
  •  It also links to families and households – there’s a lot of focus on family life, it’s kind of like an application of the Personal Life Perspective – you get to see how the meaning of family varies for the respondents
  • It’s a powerful reminder of how social class has influenced life-chances.

The strengths of this small-scale Longitudinal Study

  • The sample selection allows us to compare the life-progression of working-class kids and upper middle-class kids, from childhood to retirement.
  • The in-depth nature of the study allows us to relate personally to the stories of individuals – many of the respondents talk about how they think ordinary people will be able to relate to their life stories. Good empathetic understanding.
  • Over the years a close relationship has built up between the director and the respondents, and the later now seem to own the process more – with more of the input coming from them.
  • We get to see how political and economic changes have impacted individuals from their micro-perspective – this is a great example of an Interpretivist perspective, and it shows the sociological imagination at work.
  • Fortunately, the attrition rate hasn’t been too bad with this study.
  • We really get to see how social class effects life-chances with the working class respondents seeming to worry more about their children’s futures.

The Limitations

  • The sample size is too small to make generalisations to the population. It isn’t worth doing statistical comparisons because of the low numbers.
  • Women are underrepresented, especially now one has died and another has pulled out. And there is only one non-white participant.
  • There seems to be a gender bias in the original interviews – with many of the questions focusing on marriage for the women, but less so for the men, so difficult to make comparisons.
  • The study has clearly made the respondents minor celebrities, and being part of it may have made them lead their lives different.
  • Ethically it’s been quite demanding on the respondents, most of them talk about not looking forward to doing the interviews.
  • Will it carry on until 70-Up?!?

How to use this as a teacher

There’s a danger this might be of more interest to you as a teacher, and not so much to your students, especially if you’re of a certain age!

However, you can give students a feeling for the documentary series by simply showing them the original summary YouTube clip (I recommend) which is quite entertaining, and then following up by a couple of clips from the latest 63 Up, add in timings.  

If you just focus on Tony and Andrew, who are the first two respondents, you get to see the real difference in social class background, and you can give students a feel for the differences in ‘life-course’ these two individuals have had.

Tony: working class, and grew up in the East End of London

In the original 7 Up, Tony is one of the more memorable characters, we see him running around a lot, falling over, climbing up railings, struggling to sit still in class and talking about how important it is to ‘have a fight’.  

His aspiration was to be a jockey, and he became one when he left school at 15, but after riding in three races and not placing, he turned to taxi driving as a career, and by 21 he was doing the knowledge to become a London cab driver.

He’s had what seems to be a reasonably successful, but fairly typical working class life – he married in his 20s, and by 28 had two kids.

He moved to Essex in 40s, bought a second home in Spain, and spent a lot of holiday time out there with his family.  

He had plans to move to Spain permanently to set up a bar in his 50s, but that all collapsed along with the wider development complex he was buying into in the area, so they consolidated, sold their Spanish assets, and are now living in a nice static Caravan in Essex (I think it’s Essex), surrounded by other traditional working class people.

He’s still married to his first wife, despite getting caught with one affair.

He voted for Brexit, but feels let down by the Tories, who he’ll never vote for again.

In 63 Up he’s still a cabby, and reported losing   a third of his income because of Uber.

On the class system – he says it’s very influential – those that are born with a silver spoon get extra chances, he also says (in previous episodes) that he’s better than most other people on the show, but never had a leg up!

As to  ‘show me the child and I’ll show you the man’ he says they got it right with him, and his section closes with an image of him running in the woods, in the same style as when he was running around in 7 Up, albeit with him being a bit fatter!

Andrew

Andrew was at boarding school in the original 7 Up, and in that very first episode states that he’s going to go Cambridge and study law.

He did precisely that and became a solicitor, and ended up moving to America by his 30s to work for a big American Transnational.

By 28 he married Jane, who I think was from a bit of a lower social class background, and by 35 had two children.

There are signs of his obvious wealth – previous episodes show the family on ski holidays and one of his sons studies computer science at Birmingham University.

They have a house in London and a second home in the country (a derelict barn bought at auction)

Their interview in 63 Up is set mostly in their amazing house, and Andrew is still working as a lawyer, retiring at 63.

He says he wishes he’d spent more time with his family rather than work, and he deliberately didn’t send their children to Boarding School because of this experience.  

He thinks elements of a child’s character are shaped at 7, but there are so many options not entirely, especially for Andrew, he thinks his wife as mellowed him a lot, which is maybe a fair comment!

He thinks the class system is more based on fame rather than class.

Sue

Unfortunately many of the early interviews with women focus on questions about marriage, which is a shame because it limits the content compared to the boys/ men!

At aged 7 we see Sue talking about what boys like them and her life history focuses almost entirely on here relationships.

She was married at 24, divorced kids by 35, and in a relationship with someone else by 42 – they’ve been engaged 20 years now she’s 63 ‘longest engagement ever’??

She’s an administrator for the Postgraduate programme at UCL – still there now.

She says that here dog is like part of their family, so there’s a link to the Personal Life Perspective.

On class she says she has always been working class and that you have to be born upper class. She thinks the bottom end has got worse – homelessness is now a thing, it wasn’t when she was younger.

She also points out that she got onto the property ladder because she got a council house, which changed here life.

She thinks you can see the adult now in her 7 year old self.

As to the importance of the documentary she says

‘ People pick up on what effects them – the things we’re going through are what everyone is going through’

She’s quite a young 63 year old!

Nick

Nick was brought up on a farm in Yorkshire, so difficult to place his class background.

He’s a very intelligent individual, clearly thoughtful as even a 7 year old, and went to Oxford to study physics, researching nuclear fusion.

His research went nowhere, and he eventually ended up teaching it physics, at degree level, which he seems to be still enjoying.  

He was married then divorced by his 40s and remarried by his 50s and currently (I think) lives in America.

He suggests the programme is difficult and that it’s made him think deeply about what the purpose of his life his.

Observes that he was at Oxford at the same time as Theresa May and that it’s unfortunate that such people have the front and the route to power, as they’re not the most capable to be running the country.

He still sees himself in that 7 year old child!

He had severe throat cancer at the time of the interview.

Bruce

Bruce was in boarding school at seven, and his parents divorced while he was still boarding

At 21 he was studying maths at Oxford and then spent period working in a state school as a teacher

At 35 he took a sabbatical teaching in Bangladesh – he was on a bit of a mission to ‘give something back’ pointing out that education is the key to unlocking opportunities.  

However, by 49 he was teaching maths at St Alban’s independent school. His friends give him a hard time apparently, about where his ideals have gone to.

He married later, in his 40s and he has two sons.

He doesn’t seem to have inherited wealth (maybe that was the divorce?) – he was living in a council house when he was in his 20s and he’s still having to work now, although only to fund his children through university.

His Kids don’t know what they want to do for carers!

He says he was beaten in public school – for no reason. This Killed expression of feelings. Restricted his emotional state.

Interestingly he said that when he was single he had ideals about combatting poverty, but having a family made him focus on more making money for his family, hence the move to the independent school at that time I guess.

Jackie

Married Mick by the age of 21 and moved to the outskirts of London, decided they didn’t want children. She was divorced by 35.

A second brief relationship led to one kid, then another one led to another two, and then another relationship.

At some point she moved to Scotland and she’s still living there, living on disability benefits for years, although I think she worked in the past.

She’s been on her own for years, and has become very close to her sister recently.

She says she’s loved being in the programme and than she can still see the core of herself in that seven year old child.

One of her ex-partners died in a road traffic accident, as a pedestrian. Although separate, he was still part of their children’s lives. 

She’s had a hard life!

She’s had a go at Michael, the director and interviewer, for treating the girls/  women on the series differently – asking them about children, not about society.

Not even by 21. They were still asking her mundane domestic questions.

Pete

Peter went to a comprehensive in Liverpool and got a history degree at London University. Peter decided to pull out at 28 up.

The Tabloids decided to portray him as the angry young red in Thatcher’s Britain.

Now he’s back: to promote the music and the band he’s in.

He’s had a hard time on social media, as an outspoken lefty

Lynne – working class east end of London

At 21 Lynne was working in a mobile Library in East London – delivering children’s books.

She’s spent her life working in children’s services and fighting for them but has been a victim of funding cuts – the mobile library was cut eventually.

She was working in Bethnal Green Library by age 42, and still at 49, but by the 56 up – review, she’d lost her job there due to cuts.  

She married at 19 – stayed married, had 2 daughters, both did well at school neither went to university.

She died unexpectedly a few years ago, due to a freak accident combined with an underlying medical condition – her section ends with interviews with her husband of 35 years and daughters.

It’s all quite sad really!

Paul and Symon

Both went to the same children’s home in London, and they visit each other to this day!

Paul’s family moved to Australia when he was a teenager.  He went into the Building Trade then Warehouse

Married by 28. He’d had two children by then. One went to University the other a car mechanic. Lots of grandchildren – and their kids seem to be doing well! 

Symon

Was working at Walls Freezer Factory at 21 – at 28 didn’t want to the hassle of being a manager.

By 28 he was married and had 5 kids. Divorced by 35. By 42, he got remarried.

By 49, trained to be Foster Parents and he’s looked after over 100 kids.

Says it took him years to reconcile his kids to his first divorce – can’t rush it!

He has 10 grandchildren, his friend Paul has a few too.

What’s remarkable about these two is just how similar their life paths have been, in so many ways, their partners apparently get on really well too. I guess it demonstrates the significance of friendships in enhancing the quality of life.

My intuition also tells me that these two seem to be the ‘least troubled’ of all the original respondents – and neither of them have been particularly ambitious in their lives!

John

He went to Westminster and studied law at Christ church Cambridge

He was a barrister by 35 and still is, on the cusp of retiring.

He comes across as screamingly posh, but he’s far from a ‘typical upper class Tory’ – he’s half Bulgarian, he’s married a Bulgarian and because his parents divorced when he was very young he ended up being quite poor and went to Oxford on a scholarship.

He may have been chosen to represent a certain class, but he was a bad selection if he was supposed to be ‘typical’.  

Voted Remain – too simple to be a yes or no issue.

There were inequalities when he was 7, but he doesn’t see them anymore.

Neil

Neil’s life course is probably the most interesting – Michael says that ‘everyone loved him at 7 and 14’ but from there is life seemed to go into free fall.

At 21 he was working on a building site and living in a squat.

At 28 he was homeless and touring the west coast of Scotland and at 35 living on a council estate on the Shetland Islands

However, by 42 he had moved to London and was working as a Lid Dem counsellor, and by 49 he was doing the same but in Cumbria.

He got married in his 50s – but they do not see each other very much anymore. He suggests it is because of his mental health issues – he needs to be left alone when he has a low mood episode.

Looking back, you can see this – at 35 he’s talking about ‘knowing he’s going mad’.  This is quite interesting – back then, we weren’t used to talking about ‘mental health’, now it’s well-in!

Because he’s used to living off a low income, his counsellor wages are enough for him to live off, and he’s also bought a house in France – His wife found it. He got the money from his mother’s death.

He says that Brexit was a vote against deteriorating society and politics

Can you see the adult in the 7-year-old?

‘You and the audience are in a better position to judge’

Final thoughts – how useful is the Up Series?

I love it, but that’s probably because I’m in my late 40s and can relate to the people in it – for today’s students, this kind of in-depth look at social changes might not be that interesting.

Having said that, a lot of A-level content is about social changes over the last 40 years, and these people have lived through those changes.

Also, some of the older clips are quite a lot of fun!

The utility of the series maybe comes more in teaching kids about ‘life lessons’ – one of my my take aways is how all of these people seem to have lead pretty ordinary lives for the most part – all of them have had children except for Neil, and they’ve just ‘got on with it’ – weathered lives storms, and come out the other end.

What this series shows us more than anything else is maybe that life is nothing special, and surviving it is a success in itself.

Whether today’s teenagers will be able to relate to it, I don’t know, I get the feeling life today is maybe too hyperreal for the lives of these boomers to have any real meaning?

It’s history!

Find out More

This Article from The Conversation offers an upbeat, but critical overview of the series!

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