Life Expectancy in England is Stalling

Life expectancy has been steadily increasing since 1900, but this trend seems to be stalling, according to the recent Marmot Review of Health Equity.

You can clearly see the slow down in the increase in Life Expectancy for males and females in England in the two graphs below.

For both males and females the graph above shows a clear increasing trend from 2001 to around 2011, and then a much flatter trend from 2011 to 2017.

The above two graphs also highlight the clear correlation between deprivation and life expectancy, with the least deprived (or wealthiest) quintile of males and females enjoying around 6-8 more years of life than the most deprived (or poorest) quintile.

You can’t see it from the above graphs, but the poorest decile (the poorest tenth) of women actually experienced a slight decline in life expectancy in recent years. That is to say the very poorest women now die younger.

Declining healthy life expectancy

The report also highlights a small decline in healthy life expectancy, which I personally think is important to consider, given that it’s much more desirable to live a longer life in good health, compared to a longer life in poor health!

How do we explain the stalling of life expectancy?

The Marmot report says that an increase in deaths from winter illnesses such as flu in recent years can only explain about 20% of the decline in life expectancy.

The report also highlights funding cuts to health and social services as something which has ‘undermined the ability of local authorities to improve the social determinants of health’.

NB – note that the wording of the above is very careful, the report doesn’t say that funding cuts have caused a decrease in the rate of improvement of life expectancy, probably because the report doesn’t have sufficient data to infer a significant enough correlation between funding cuts and life expectancy trends.

So while the trends may be objective, we need to be careful about jumping to conclusions about why life expectancy is stalling!

One thing we can say is that inequality clearly hasn’t improved in the last 20 years, if we use differences as life expectancy as an indicator of this!

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is useful as an update to explaining trends in the death rate!

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Why are Americans Dying Younger?

Life Expectancy in the U.S. has fallen for the last three years in a row, which is yet further supporting evidence that the United States might actually be a less developed country.

The decline is driven by the increasing death rates in young Americans, aged between 25 to 64, which the main causes of death being ‘deaths of despair’ – alcohol and drug related deaths, suicides, obesity and drugs linked to chronic stress.

Interestingly the high death rates cut across class, gender and ethnic lines, and all regions of the United States.

Why does America have such a high mid-life mortality rate?

America has one of the highest mid-life mortality rates of high income countries, despite spending more on heath care than most other countries.

The statistics tell a depressing tale – mortality from drug overdoses has increased by around 400% since the late 1990s and Obesity rates have increased dramatically too – men now way on average 30 pounds more than they did 50 years ago.

In short, the causes of high mid life mortality are that people are just making destructive life choices and choosing not to take care of themselves, with increasing numbers of people self-medicating with alcohol, drugs (both illegal and legal) and junk-food.

There are number of possible deeper economic and social explanations as to the increasing mid-life death rate in America – we could apply Strain Theory – it could be that the people making the above choices are experiencing a sense of ‘anomie’ – these are people just working to survive with no obvious chance of ‘succeeding’.

It could also be that America is one of the most unequal countries on earth – and while many struggle to survive, they see daily success stories on the media, which enhances the sense of relative deprivation and their own failure.

Or these people self-medicating may be successful in some ways – have successful careers, but they’ve sacrificed their families because of it, so these could be deaths due to to loneliness or social isolation.

Whatever the causes, I’m just glad I don’t live in the US!

Find out more:

If you want to find out more, read this November 2019 article from The Washington Post.

Finally, don’t forget the useful application of this material to the demography section of the families and household module!

Emma Watson recently coined the term ‘self-partnering’ to demonstrate her happiness with being single, which is in an increasing trend in the UK

There are 16.7 million people in the UK who are single and never married, and the number is increasing, with almost 370 000 more single people in the UK in 2018 compared to 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Unsurprisingly, you’re more likely to be single and never married when you’re younger compared to when you’re older, but at Emma Watson’s age almost half of people are single. However this has declined to only 25% of the population for people in their mid 40s.

NB – being single and not married doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely or celibate: many of these people will be dating, maybe in the early stages of a relationship, maybe in a more serious relationship and just not living together, so this just their formal status, rather than their actual relationship situation.

It would be interesting to get some stats on how many of these people are actually ‘single’ in the sense of not being in any kind of romantic relationship!

Relevance of this to A-level sociology

This is just a quick update to highlight the continued trend away from marriage and towards singledom. This is relevant to the ‘marriage and divorce’ topics and the ‘decline in the family’ debate within families and households.

If you’re interested in understanding why there are more single people, this post is a good starting point, on the increase in single person households, a closely related topic!

You can also use the ‘definition’ of single by the ONS to illustrate some of the limitations of official statistics – in that it isn’t the same as how most of us would use the word ‘single’ when we talk about relationships.

Generation Anxious

700 000 children in the U.K. are currently registered with an emotional disorder, that’s 7.2%, of 5-19 year olds, or about 1 in 13, according to a recent survey by NHS Digital.

emotional disorders NHS

And that’s just those children who have been formally diagnosed. That figure of 7.2% represents those children who have reached the clinical diagnoses threshold – where their distress impairs them so much that it gets in the way of their daily functioning.

The Children’s society says there are many who can’t get help because their problems are not serious enough, maybe as many as 3-4 times the above figure.

Mental health disorders have a huge economic impact, costing the UK 4% of GDP.

In this blog post I summarize a recent podcast from Radio Four’s ‘Bringing Up Britain: Generation Anxious’ which explores why so many of today’s children suffer with anxiety.

The show explores various possible contributors such as social media, pressurized exams, genetics and parents passing on their own worries to their children, as well as changing cultural norms which remove children’s agency.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is the buzz word of the moment, but the anxiety which stops children going to school is different to butterflies in tummies before going on stage at the school play. The word covers both, a human experience we all feel and a clinical diagnosis.

The later type of ‘ordinary’ anxiety can be helpful in some senses, and anxiety is a normal response to stress and entirely normally developmentally – e.g. up to the age of three separation anxiety is normal as are phobias for pre-school children, and for teens there is a heightened sense of awareness of our selves and how others see us.

In order to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, the level of distress must be so debilitating that one cannot function – it’s where you can’t face going out because you’re so anxious.

There are also different types of anxiety: such as social anxiety – not being able to be scrutinized without going bright red, and generalized anxieties – about anything that can go wrong, for example.

If you get serious anxiety as a child, it harms your development – you’re behind your peers and with schoolwork, and it’s reinforcing – the more you get behind, then the more there is to be anxious about!

Anxiety Increases with age, more common with girls, strong link to deprivation and family history. It’s also affect by personality types – some are more cautious and socially shy.

What is it that’s making children feel more anxious?

Social context is important – not so long ago, children would be out playing at ages 6-7, away from their parents, developing a sense of their own agency, but we’ve now starved them of these chances to be independent in primary school – primary schools forbid children to travel their alone – hence why secondary school is now seen as more of a challenge!

It could also be parents are increasingly transferring their anxieties onto their children – linked to the fact that there are too many experts telling parents what to do and the increased pressure on ‘getting parenting right’ – anxious parents makes anxious children: they do share an environment, after all!

A recent column in The Times likened GCSEs to a type of child abuse, but increased exam pressure is dismissed as being linked to increasing anxiety, because we’ve been doing them for thousands of years, and they’re probably less stressful now than they were 30 years ago.

However, it doesn’t help that children are more sensitive about the future nowadays and that more creative subjects which many children prefer are now squeezed out in favour of English and Maths.

The show also considers the effect of Social Media – it makes sense because your social media presence is fundamentally linked to your social identity – and it doesn’t switch off, and this is especially likely to impact teens at the time of life when they’re thinking about their identities.

However, there is a lock of good evidence of the relationship between social media usage and anxiety levels: its just cross sectional but we don’t know what comes first, we don’t know what kind of social media activity teens are involved in and we don’t have longitudinal data.

Socioeconomic factors also play a role – giving time to children, both physically and emotionally is important for their development, but the lower an income you earn, then the more time you need to spend working, and the less time you have for your children.

Body Image and anxiety

There does seem to be evidence of a relationship between body image and anxiety.

A recent Mental Health Foundation Survey found that ¼ people aged 18-24 believed that reality TV shows such as Love Island makes them worry about body image.

1/3rd of young people worry every day about their body, feeling things such as shame.

Over 1/5th 17-19 year old girls have anxiety depression or both. Around 11-14 there is a relationship between obesity and anxiety, but the relationship is complex.

How to help children control anxiety…

Various solutions are offered

  • More resources for mental health services
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy is mentioned as a good way of dealing with more serious anxiety.
  • Forest Schools and meditation lessons in schools are day to day things we could be doing socially
  • Giving young people more of a sense of agency
  • Being prepared to listen to children and talking about anxiety.

We also need to remember that ‘normal’ levels of anxiety are helpful – without it, we probably wouldn’t care about how we perform in society, it’s a natural part of going through changes, and the best things in life don’t tend to happen in comfort zones!

Relevance to A-level Sociology 

This is of relevance to the sociology of childhood, especially toxic childhood, and also research methods: we need to question whether these anxiety stats are valid or whether they’re socially constructed. The growth of anxiety might just be because there are more experts more willing to diagnose anxiety.

 

Bringing up Britain – A useful resource for A-level sociology

If you’re struggling to find useful resources to update the childhood topic within the sociology of the family then you should check out ‘Bringing Up Britain‘, a weekly radio 4 show/ podcast hosted by Mariella Frostrup. bringing up Britain.png

Each episode lasts 40 minutes and consists of debate among ‘experts’ on an aspect of contemporary parenting and childhood. You can see from the screenshot above just how relevant some of these topics are to the sociology of the family as well as to A-level sociology more generally.

The programme tends to analyse issues through more of a psychological perspective rather than a sociological one, but it’s a useful resource nonetheless which does consider social issues such as labelling, the role of the media, and changing norms and values, and how all of these (among other things) affect modern parenting and childhood.

Recent topics include:

  • why do children lie (and is it a problem, not necessarily apparently!) – relevant to the family and crime and deviance
  • Generation anxious – relative to toxic childhood and just generally useful for helping kids deal with mental health issues.
  • Parenting in the Smart Phone age – also relevant to the media module.

 

Using contemporary examples to evaluate within the sociology of families and households

A level sociology students should be looking to using contemporary examples and case studies to illustrate points and evaluate theories whenever possible. In the exams, the use of contemporary evidence is something examiners look for and reward.

Below are a few examples of some recent events in the news which are relevant to the sociology of families and households. You’ll need to read the items for more depth on how to apply them.

All of the above took place in either 2019 or 2018! 

Evaluate the personal life perspective on the family(20)

This is a possible question which could come up in the AQA’s Paper 2, families and households topic. This post is just a few thoughts on how I’d go about answering it.

I thin this would be a fair question given that this is quite a difficult topic for students, and quite limited in what you can say for 20 marks.

Item

The Personal Life Perspective argues that sociologists should study family life from the perspectives of individuals, and focus on what families mean to them. If people believe that pets and dead relatives are part of their family, the sociologists should accept this.

This is very different from traditional sociological perspectives such as Functionalism and Marxism, which tended to study the nuclear family and look at what functions this performed for the individual and society.

Using the item and your own knowledge, Evaluate the personal life perspective on the family 

Decode/ discussion

What you need to do here is firstly show your knowledge of the Personal Life Perspective, and contrast this to Functionalism and Marxism. You can gain evaluation marks by showing how the PLP perspective criticise these older perspectives. Further analysis marks can be picked up by discussing how the former perspectives may have been relevant to a modernist society, but the PLP perspective is probably a better way of analysing the family in a post-modern society.

Finally, to criticise the PLP perspective, you could use Gidden’s Late Modernist theory. Although this would be a stretch for many students, especially as many of the text books don’t even recognise that Giddens is a Late Modernist.

Suggested Points

 

  • The PLP perspective emerged in the 1990s and criticised the Functionalist and Marxist view that the nuclear family should be the primary unit of analysis.
  • PLP argues that people still form meaningful relationships, but their Identity or sense of belonging increasingly comes from other people NOT traditionally regarded as part of a ‘normal family’ – for example pets, friends and dead relatives may all be seen as important to individuals.
  • The PLP perspective makes sense today because the nuclear family has declined in significance as fewer people get married, fewer people have kids, and more and more people spend time living alone, yet people still form meaningful relationships with each other.
  • The PLP perspective suggests we look at the family from the individual’s point of view, taking their definition – which can be useful, because if we do so we find that many people regard ‘non-nuclear’ family members as more important to them than their immediate traditional family.
  • This is is useful because it means we should not over-estimate the stability of the traditional nuclear family, and not be surprised by high rates of family break-down.
  • PLP also seems to fit in with interactionism – looking at the family from the ground up, rather than the top down, a strength of this is that we see that there are still families in the UK, nearly everyone has one, but just not in the standard ‘nuclear family’ sense of the word.
  • The PLP perspective is thus useful in criticising the New Right – people may not be in nuclear families, or married, but they are capable of establishing their own alternative families.
  • PLP is also useful to criticise Functionalism and Marxism – if families are different to the nuclear family, theories which focus on the role of the nuclear family must be wrong.
  • This is also a useful way of exploring family diversity, revealing family diversity if you like, and it’s appropriate when life-courses are diverse and complex.
  • The PLP perspective did, however suggest that people are not entirely free to construct their own families, they are constrained in their ability to do so by society and their immediate culture.
  • Finally, a weakness of PLP is that it ends up being a bit wishy-washy, descriptive rather than analytical, one is kind of left shrugging one’s shoulders wondering what the point of it is!

How does social policy affect family life – Summary Grid

A summary grid of how five social policies might affect different aspects of family life. Designed to help students revise for A-level sociology – the families and households topic.

Picture below and then text version after!

Policy First Thoughts – How might this policy affect family life in the UK? More specifically will this support or undermine the conventional nuclear family?   Who does this policy benefit?

 

The 1969 and 1984 Divorce Acts  ·      Increases divorce and thus single parent, single person and reconstituted households

 

·      Undermine ·      Women (in abusive relationships)
Maternity and Paternity Acts ·      Should make relationships between men and women more equal

 

 

·      Undermine ·      Women (encourages men to become primary child carers)

·      And men – easier for them to be stay at home dads)

The Civil Partnership and Gay Marriage Acts ·      Reduces stigma against same sex relationships

·      Encourages more same sex families

 

·      Undermine ·      Same sex couples (reduction of stigma)
Universal Child Benefits ·      Encourage (poorer) parents to have more children, larger families

 

·      Support ·      Families with children

·      children

Income Support for Single Parents ·      Reduce the number of single parents

 

 

 

 

·      Support (recent changes make it more difficult for single parents to claim benefits) ·      (losers) single parents

Globalisation and the Family

One of the more difficult topics on the families and households specification is how globalisation influences family life. Below are some examples. I’ve also tried to take these examples from different areas of the families and households specification (e.g. marriage, childhood etc.)

Whether you regard the points below as positive or negative is open to interpretation!

Some positive/ neutral consequences of globalisation for family life

  • Global optimists argue that economic globalisation has resulted in increasing trade which in turn has resulted in huge economic growth and rising prosperity, correlated with declining birth rates and family size.
  • Immigrant families to the UK have on average higher birth rates than non-immigrant families. A positive effect of this is that it reduces the dependency ratio, however a claimed negative consequence is an increased strain on public services, mainly schools.
  • Increasing migration to the U.K = increasing cultural diversity and diversity of family structures.  After several generations, more ethnic diversity.
  • Increased migration means more families are stretched across national borders and have family members living abroad, which in turn reinforces globalisation as more families maintain contacts through media and physical visits.
  • Cultural globalisation means more people create friendship groups based on shared interests online. Many people regard these friendship networks as ‘family’, if we follow analysis from the Personal life perspective.
  • There seems to be a globalisation of ‘single person households’. There seems to be a global trend of increasing numbers of people choosing to live alone (not necessarily not being in relationships.

Some negative consequences of globalisation for family life

  • Part of globalisation is people displacement following conflict, which sometimes results in the breaking up of families, U.K. policy has focused (to an extent) on taking in orphan refugee children, meaning more ‘global step/ foster families’.
  • Globalisation = increasing inequality in family life and increasing cost of living for the poor. Property price speculation has driven up prices in London meaning the basic costs of maintaining a family household had doubled in the last 30 years relative to inflation, this helps explain why so many young adults today ‘choose’ to live with their parents.
  • Globalisation = more diversity, choice, uncertainty, resulting in decline of people committing to long term relationships and more ‘pure relationships’. (Giddens)
  • Globalisation = more media flows – children more active users of media, more exposed to global media events can have negative effects:
      • More difficult for parents to prevent radicalisation (e.g. Shameena Begum)
      • More exposure to global media events (mass shootings in USA, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, war and conflicts) children are more risk conscious – anxious kids, more mental health issues. (More ‘toxic childhood’)
      • Parents are more paranoid, more restrictive parenting, less outdoor

Changes to the ONS’ CPI Basket of Goods and Lifestyle Changes in the UK

The Office for National Statistics monitors inflation by using the Consumer Price Index, which uses a representative sample of consumer goods and services purchased by households.

The easiest way to think about this is to imagine a very large shopping basket full of goods and services which the ‘typical household’ buys on a regular basis – researchers from the ONS use already existing survey data to figure out which goods and services best reflect the nation’s consumption habits in 12 ‘expenditure categories’ such as ‘food’, ‘housing’ and ‘communication’ – and track the prices of these items over time to measure inflation, or changes to the cost of living for the ‘typical’ household.

For example, under ‘food’, the ONS monitors the prices of items such as chips, pastry-based snacks and raspberries, among other things, these items representing expenditure on ‘frozen potato products’, ‘savoury snacks’ and ‘soft fruit’.

Somewhat surprisingly, there’s all sorts of links in here to aspects of the Families and Households module!

The ONS updates the items in the ‘shopping basket’ every year to reflect trends in consumer spending – it removes items which have become significantly less popular and adds in new items.

The changes actually provide an entertaining insight into changes in lifestyles in the UK. For example, some of the changes made to the basket in 2019 included:

  • Dinner plate replaced crockery set to reflect the fact that cutlery is more likely to be bought as single items (reflecting the shift to single person households)
  • Non-leather settees replace three piece non-leather suite, reflecting the same trend as above.
  • Portable speaker and smart-speaker replaced Hi-Fi, reflecting changes in technology.
  • Bakeware – a new category – reflecting the fact that people have been watching too much Bake-Off.
  • Popcorn – added – possibly reflecting the rise of stay at home movie watching.
  • Dog Treats – replaced dry dog food – reflecting the increased importance of pets in family life (which kind of reminds me of the Personal Life Perspective!).

You might also like to read the methodology section of the ONS’ CPI, it’s an interesting one for sampling: in terms of how they choose the products, it’s not straightforward!