Case study

Changing experiences of mid-life

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Author: Dieter Demey, University of Southampton, Ann Berrington, Maria Evandrou and Jane Falkingham

Date: 27 February 2012

Type of case study: Research

About the research

According to data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) the average life expectancy at birth has been rising steadily in the UK since the 1980s. The potential for a longer life means that the mid-life period for many is changing, as the timing of life events such as marriage and having children has changed and the kinds of relatives people have by mid-life has now shifted.

Researchers from the ESRC Centre for Population Change at the University of Southampton have been investigating the changing experiences and demography of people at mid-life in Britain since the early 1980s. To do this they have been using three UK Data Service datasets, including data from the new Understanding Society longitudinal study.

They focused on the changing living arrangements and presence of kin in the household at mid-life, as well the changing characteristics of those in mid-life. Their findings were:

  • the number of those in mid-life with a child or a grandchild has decreased over the last 10 years while those with a living parent or grandparent rose
  • for those in early mid-life with children, more are living with dependent children than those 25 years ago
  • more people in mid-life are living alone, especially among men
  • the number of people who are married has declined while the number of those who are divorced has risen
  • the overall socio-economic position of people in mid-life has risen and the gender differences have narrowed
  • women's lives at mid-life have become more complex, with more now being employed while simultaneous providing support to children and older parents
  • despite government policies designed to encourage employment amongst the over-50s, in 2007 one third of men and half of women aged 55-64 were economically inactive

As the government begins to develop policies designed to tackle an aging population that is living longer, the researchers hope these findings can help inform policies that plan for the care of those in old age, to ensure the continual employment of those over 50, and that reflects the growing complexity of a modern family life.

About the data

This research drew on three longitudinal datasets hosted by the UK Data Service: The British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), Understanding Society, and the General Household Survey (GHS).

The British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) was conducted by the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex with the aim of investigating social and economic change on an individual and household level first in Great Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) and later included the whole United Kingdom. The BHPS measured employment, household organisation, socio-economic values, health, marital and relationship history and social support, amongst others, which was then used to identify model and forecast changes, their causes and consequences.

BHPS has now become part of Understanding Society, a new longitudinal study also conducted by ISER. This new survey incorporated the BHPS participants along with a General Population component, an Innovation Panel and a boost sample of ethnic minority group members to survey around 40,000 households including approximately 100,000 individuals in the UK.

The General Household Survey (GHS), now known as the General Lifestyle Survey, was a long-term annual survey between 1971 and 2011 conducted by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). It surveyed around 13,000 people in Great Britain on a range of topics including smoking, family, housing, marriage and occupation, to help plan and monitor public policy.


The research was the secondary analysis of several waves from the three studies above: Wave 11 (2001) of the BHPS, the first wave (2009) of Understanding Society, and three waves (1984, 1998, and 2007) of the GHS.

The presence of relatives was measured and compared (for both co-resident and non-co-resident kin) using data from the BHPS and Understanding Society where both of these had been measured. The socio-economic profile and living arrangements of people in mid-life were taken from data in the GHS waves in order to measure any changes since the 1980s.

Publications and outputs

Demey, D., Berrington, A., Evandrou, M. and Falkingham, J. (2011) The changing demography of mid-life, from the 1980s to the 2000s, ONS Population Trends No. 145, Autumn. Retrieved 11 September 2013 from

Demey, D., Berrington, A., Evandrou, M. and Falkingham, J. (2011) How has mid-life changed in Britain since the 1980s?, Centre for Population Change Briefing No. 2, September. Retrieved 11 September 2013 from

The findings also received media coverage:

Doughty, S. (22 September 2011) 'Family splits leave millions to face their later years alone', The Daily Mail [Web version]. Retrieved 11 September 2013 from

Ross, T. (22 September 2011) 'More middle-aged are living alone', The Telegraph [Web version]. Retrieved 11 September 2013 from

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