It’s easy to lose sight of just how accepting the UK now is as a nation. What were once pressing moral concerns have become simple facts of life for much of the public. The UK, in fact, now ranks as one of the most accepting countries internationally, as shown by new data from the World Values Survey.
This is one of the largest and most widely used social surveys in the world. It has run since 1981, capturing the views of almost 400,000 respondents in over 110 countries.
Major surveys on social trends help us to look back and remind us how far we’ve come in our attitudes across so many spheres of life – from homosexuality to casual sex and divorce.
The British public have become much more socially liberal over the last 41 years
Attitudes towards sex
It’s incredible to think that in 1981 just 12% of the British public thought that homosexuality was “justifiable”. It is perhaps even more shocking that it had only risen to 33% in 2009. But by 2022 that level of acceptance had doubled again, to 66%.
Of around 20 nations included in a report by the Policy Institute at King’s College London that analyses the data, only three –- Sweden, Norway and Germany –- are more accepting of homosexuality than the UK.
In terms of sex more broadly, in 1999, just one in 10 Britons thought having casual sex was justifiable – but more than four times as many held this view in 2022, with a considerable rise from as recently as 2018. This shift means the UK is now the fourth most accepting of casual sex, ahead of countries including France and Norway, and not far off Australia, which is the most accepting.
And between 1981 and 2022, the proportion of Britons who said divorce is justifiable rose from just 18% to 64%. Only Sweden and Norway are more accepting of people dissolving their marriages, while the UK is far above some other Western nations such as the US (just 38%) and Italy (40%).
The UK is also among the most accepting of divorce, abortion, euthanasia and casual sex
This social transformation isn’t just a result of younger generations replacing older cohorts. All generations have changed their views significantly, although the oldest pre-1945 cohort now often stand out as quite different –- and on some issues, like casual sex, there is a clearer generational hierarchy. Two-thirds of those born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s think casual sex is acceptable, but only one third of baby boomers (born between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s) agree.
Attitudes towards death
The one key issue for which we rank as comparatively less liberal than other countries is the death penalty. One in five in the UK think capital punishment is justifiable and a further 35% think it is potentially justifiable. Taken together, this means a majority think it may be acceptable in certain circumstances, which is much higher than Italy, Germany, Sweden and Norway, for example, but lower than Australia, France and the US.
The UK is much more mid-table in our attitudes to the death penalty
Support for the death penalty also relates much more to political identities than other issues, with Conservative voters much more likely to be in favour of capital punishment than Labour voters. This helps explain why it continues to be brought up in political discussions.
Other trends in attitudes also highlight likely future directions on some key topics that remain sensitive. For example, support for euthanasia has increased significantly, from 20% in 1981 to 47% now, no doubt partly due to greater awareness of the issue.
Assisted dying is, of course, still illegal in the UK. It is, however, now seen as much more acceptable by the UK public than other illegal behaviours asked about in the study, such as dodging taxes.
One other trend raises some thorny questions. Suicide is still seen as justifiable by a relatively small minority of the population. But that minority has grown substantially, from 6% to 19% between 1981 and 2022. The UK now ranks among the most likely to say suicide is justifiable, along with France, Germany and Spain.
This increase is to a large degree driven by much higher proportions of gen Z saying suicide is justifiable, at 30%. The prevalence of suicide among young people can be overblown – for example, gen Z is often wrongly characterised as a “suicidal generation”. Suicide is one of the top killers among the young, but the this is mostly because young people don’t die very often.
Gen Z also stand out as being particularly likely to think suicide is justifiable
There has, however, been a slight increase in suicide rates among young people, particularly young girls, in recent years, as well as increases in suicide attempts and self-harming behaviours. The greater acceptability of suicide among young people today could simply be a sign of a cohort of young that better understands and engages on mental health issues.
Thankfully, we’re in a much better place in terms of people feeling more able to talk about suicidal thoughts. Any sense we may be “normalising” suicide is clearly something to understand and consider carefully. But it’s also important not to overplay this as yet and to remember that the overall long-term trend is towards signficantly lower rates of suicide.
Surveys of this kind, on social attitudinal shifts, aren’t just about reflecting on the past. They are vital in looking forward. For every social issue that is largely settled, there will always be new, emergent challenges, and these trends provide signals of what could come next.
Bobby Duffy receives funding from the ESRC, Cabinet Office, Barrow Cadbury Trust, Unbound Philanthropy, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.