Jane Elliott blog: Tracking childhood from the 1960s till today

21 May 2012

Do children’s early life experiences determine their future health, wealth, and happiness? Can the ambitions and aspirations of seven year olds have a major impact on their future career and family life? 

These are the questions that the 56 Up documentary series Monday nights on ITV1. They are also the questions addressed by the unique portfolio of British birth cohort studies that we look after at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education.

It was 1964 when Michael Apted first recruited a group of seven-year-olds from contrasting social backgrounds for the 7 Up documentary series. Just a year later, in 1965, over 14,000 seven year olds were surveyed and information collected from their mothers, their teachers and school medical doctors about their health, living conditions, school work, and development. These children were part of the National Child Development Study (NCDS), longitudinal research that built on a major survey of all the babies born in Britain in one week in spring 1958. Just like the 7 Up documentary, but on a rather different scale, this fascinating study still continues today. Indeed, the next survey of these cohort members will be in 2013 when they are aged 55. Researchers use the detailed information it provides to understand more about how circumstances in early life affect later development and well being.

For example, analysis of data from the study has demonstrated that parental divorce can often have a long term impact, so that young men and women whose parents had divorced were more likely to marry early, were less likely to get high level qualifications and were more likely to be unemployed at age 23. Early adversity has also been found to have an impact on health in mid-life so that a recent paper, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, shows that financial adversity in childhood is linked with poorer adult lung function. This is partly because in the 1960s children from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to live in poor quality housing, but also because these children were more likely to become smokers.

The data from the 1958 study also give us a fascinating insight into the lives of Britain’s seven year olds in the 1960s, and, by comparing this sample with later born cohorts, we can understand something of how childhood has changed over the last four decades. For example, in 1965 just one in fifty seven-year-olds (2%) was classified as “obese” and a further one in ten (9%) as “overweight”. Using data from the Millennium Cohort Study, which is following lives of around 19,000 children born in the UK in 2000-01, we know that by 2008 the proportion of seven-year-olds classified as obese had tripled to over one in twenty (6%), and one in seven (14%) were overweight. Comparisons between the cohorts also suggest that parenting has changed: in 1965, half of mothers (49%) reported reading to their child every week, compared with just over a third of resident fathers (36%); in 2008, nine in ten mothers (90%) and three quarters of resident fathers (74%) reported reading to their child at least once a week.

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