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Willetts: Making sense of society

Speech to Policy Exchange

Something very important is happening in today's Conservative Party. We are rediscovering society. It is the theme that runs through much of what Iain has done in his year as Leader.

His powerful speech last week described five giants which have to be tackled. In his speech at the Harrogate Spring Forum he put the needs of vulnerable people at the heart of the Party's agenda.

All this is a dramatic contrast with the supposed doctrine of the 1980's - "There is no such thing as society." That remark has hung round our necks for the past 15 years. Labour shamelessly use it as a sign that we are like Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic - someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

That remark was an inaccurate caricature of Margaret Thatcher's beliefs. She understood that the individuals and families that underpinned her view of society were not just economic calculating machines. But the charge has stuck. We cannot now win a historical argument about what Mrs. Thatcher really meant 15 years ago and ask the electorate to apologise for misunderstanding her. What we can do is recognise that this is how many electors came to see us and show them how we are changing.

Iain's speech last week was so powerful because it tackled people's real concerns. It caught the sense that something is going wrong with our society. There is a widening gap between the aspirations of the British people and the reality of the society they see around them. This evening, therefore, I will try to paint a picture of British society as it is today, focusing on two of the most important parts of our lives - our jobs and our families.

Jobs and families are not just two of the most important experiences of our lives. They are also both thought to be changing in rather similar ways. Both jobs and families are thought to be less secure than before. We appear to be becoming a society where relationships are more transient - both with our employers and our partners. Sometimes the only question seems to be whether to celebrate or bemoan the transformation that is going on.

When it comes to the labour market Conservatives are seen as welcoming this sort of change whereas when it comes to families the boot is on the other foot. So it might be illuminating to compare and contrast what is happening. The picture may be rather more complicated and intriguing than the conventional wisdom.

The conventional wisdom is that we are all changing jobs and indeed changing careers much more than in the past. Speeches from Cabinet Ministers and articles from commentators are littered with platitudes about the new flexible economy in which we have portfolios of different jobs instead of traditional careers. Jobs for life are supposed to be on the way out. Our knowledge is supposed to become out of date so quickly that we need core skills instead.

It is true that 20 per cent of employees changed their employer at least once in the previous year. Also there is more job changing than there used to be. But if we look at evidence from the Labour Force Survey, assembled by the Pension Provision Group, we get a better idea of the reality. The rate of change declines markedly with age. It all depends how old you are. The proportion who had started with their current employer in the last year are:

for those aged 16 to 19, as many as 58 per cent;

for those between 20 and 24, about 40 per cent;

for those aged between 25 and 49, about 17 per cent;

for those aged 50 to state pension age, only 9 per cent.

Young people are by far the most frequent job changers. Over half of all job changes occur before the age of 30 and a quarter before the age of 20. Most job mobility is accounted for by people aged under 30. It is not just that young people change jobs more than old people: they also change jobs more than young people used to. This is what drives the apparent increase in our job changing.

In 1975 those under 25 could expect to be in their second job within three years of entering employment. By the 1990s they could typically be expected to be entering their fourth job. We do indeed have more jobs during our lifetime but this is almost entirely accounted for by more jobs before we are 30.

The explanation for this increase in job mobility among young people is that they are trying out a greater range of jobs before they settle down to their chosen careers. There are many more options now. Job satisfaction matters more to people. As a result, they are taking longer to find the job that suits them best. They don't want to rush in to a career decision at the age of 18 or 21. They try out different options over a longer period and quite possibly go abroad to experiment even more widely. They positively enjoy the change, the diversity and the impermanence. That's fine for them. But most of them do want a stable career and the evidence is that they do eventually settle down to just that, often with one employer. A longer period of youthful experiment is wrongly being interpreted as a fundamental change in the way we all work.

As Robert Taylor, the distinguished commentator on the labour market, concludes in his Report, 'Britain's World of Work': "The evidence simply does not sustain the view that we are witnessing the emergence of a new kind of employment relations seen in the end of the career and the death of the permanent job for life."

The OECD did a similar study across advanced western economies a few years ago and came up with very similar conclusions. They just could not find this fundamental shift in the nature of our careers in the data.

Some industries have indeed fragmented over the past decade, with new businesses emerging on the scene. As a result we can find dramatic shifts to shorter periods of employment with one firm in some sectors of the economy. The media and communications industry is one example. That happens to be the industry that the commentators come from. They are making the classic mistake of interpreting what is happening to them as the trend across the country as a whole. Even here, of course, many people still have a lifetime career albeit with a greater number of employers.

People do have to be flexible in the way they work - but that can be within a chosen career and even with a chosen employer. It may mean enhancing one's skills in a specific job, rather than chopping and changing all the time. Indeed, there is even some good economic theory which explains the resilience of long-term employment. Economists have begun to recognise the value of something which Conservatives have long understood - tacit knowledge. This is knowledge that is not necessarily written down, let alone captured in a diploma or a certificate, but it has a real value nevertheless.

The longer you work for an employer the more knowledge you have, making you more valuable to him. And much of this knowledge is tacit - he knows you have this knowledge, when outsiders do not, so he can value you better than other potential employers. Moreover, much of this knowledge may be very specific - worth more to your employer than to anyone else.

One of the reasons why Professor James Heckman received the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2000 was that his empirical research captured the value of this learning by doing and showed how it increased as you stayed with an employer.

Let me summarise the argument so far. There is no evidence of a fundamental shift to short and transient periods of work with a range of employers for the population as a whole. So the labour market does need to be flexible, but that doesn't mean the death of the long-term career or stable employment. Much of the evidence for the supposed new instability and insecurity of employment is really evidence of younger people voluntarily changing jobs more as they discover the career that is best for them. And they are more demanding than before, so they search for longer. But the evidence is that they do eventually settle down with one employer. A longer period of youthful experiment is wrongly interpreted as a fundamental change in the way we work.

Now let us turn from the economics of the labour market to what might seem to be the very different world of personal relationships. But we might find some rather interesting parallels.

The Blairite pundits claim that we as a nation are abandoning marriage. Just as stable jobs and lifelong careers are supposed to be on the way out so we are also supposed to be seeing the end of marriage. It is relegated to just another lifestyle choice, alongside many other supposedly equally popular and widespread ways of living. This is a very important question which lies at the heart of our understanding of society. Society is supposed to be atomising - just like the labour market - into individuals with weaker and weaker ties to others. It is indeed a staple of much social comment that we are moving, as it is put in the title of one book, from 'Tribal brotherhood to universal otherhood.'

Such a trend matters because all the evidence is that marriage improves human wellbeing ranging from physical health through to happiness and fulfilment. The research assembled in America by Linda Waite, James Q. Wilson and others and only this week here in Britain by Civitas, is compelling. Sociologists are at last beginning to accumulate evidence how marriage, and the long-term commitment which it embodies, is of great value to people. It is not just a mini welfare state though it is. It is the best environment for bringing up children. It is a deep source of human satisfaction.

We cannot understand the problems of our poorest areas unless we recognise the role of family breakdown. It comes across time and again when I have been meeting people at our One Nation hearings. When I talk to a teacher about the stresses on the children that they are trying to educate, or a local doctor about the health of people living in the area, it is absolutely clear that if relationships are more unstable and marriages are rare and fragile, then the whole social fabric of an area can be weakened. Marriage doesn't just help those within it—it spreads its benefits more widely to others as well. So we appear to be abandoning something not because it is failing but when the evidence is piling up that it works. How can we make sense of this?

The figures certainly appear to show that marriage is in decline. And I don't want to deny the reality that more marriages break down than in the past. But the Left has been wrong to interpret this as meaning that people have stopped aspiring to have a long-term relationship with a partner recognised and reinforced in the institution of marriage. It is not that we are abandoning the aspiration to get marriage but instead a wider gap is opening up between what people aspire to and how they actually conduct their lives. This in turn helps to give us as Conservatives a sense of the role for public policy. We are not trying to change what people most deeply want. We are trying to help improve an environment, much of it shaped by politicians and policies, which makes it more difficult for them to achieve what they aspire to.

Many people believe the evidence shows we are abandoning marriage. But let us look at it a bit more closely. It is certainly true that people spend more of their lives on their own than before. But what are these periods? There are many elderly people living on their own after the death of a spouse. In the old days you left your parents' home and got married. Now you leave your parents' home and live on your own or share a flat with friends. We have added longer stages to the life cycle outside the married family. So if you count households you can show there are many more of them which are not traditional families.

Cohabitation has transformed the picture as well. You often have a spell cohabiting with your boyfriend or girlfriend. These cohabitations rarely last long. Within 10 years most have either dissolved or turned into marriage. And after a cohabitation breaks up people have on average two years living on their own - or back with their parents - before they cohabit again. It is not, for most people, a long-term alternative lifestyle.

The evidence from attitude surveys shows how resilient and widespread marriage is as an aspiration. Most people who start cohabiting hope it may turn into marriage. Most single pregnant women wish they were married when they had their babies. Kate Green, the Director of the National Council for One Parent Families, was quoted recently as saying 'you would have to be mad to set out to be a single parent.'

There was a very interesting survey of the attitudes of 25-year-old women. They had an average of 8 partners: two-thirds had had a one-night stand; So they had thoroughly modern attitudes to sex. But 90% said that they would like to get married and that they then expected their marriage to be faithful.

If you ask people whether they think it's wrong to have an extra-marital affair you get a very significant result. 69% of 45-54 year olds think it's wrong. When you ask 25-30-year-olds, a higher percentage, 78% do. They have not of course had the same experiences of the compromises of real life that middle-aged people have had.

There is an important clue here to what's going on. It is not that marriage has been rejected. If anything we have higher hopes of marriage then ever before. We are taking longer than before to find the right partner, but we are still searching for that person with whom we want to spend the rest of our lives—just ask Bridget Jones. Everything takes far longer than it used to because we are far more choosy and it takes longer to get the knowledge we need about a potential partner.

All this pushes back the average age of marriage. 30 years ago, nine out of ten women had married by their 30th birthday. That is now down to two-thirds of women being married by then. The average age of our first marriage is rising steadily. It has reached 30.5 years for men and 27.3 years for women.

This statistic is a good example of how an important social change is easily misinterpreted. As a result of the rising age of marriage it is obviously correct to say that a declining proportion of adults are married. When you add in divorce and widowhood you can predict a future where less than 50% of adults are married. But it is wrong to conclude from this that there has been a big decline in the number of people getting married. There is a lively debate amongst the demographers about the trends in the total percentage of adults who are ever married. It peaked at over 90% and it is still forecast to be well over 80%. So most of us end up getting married, but it takes us longer.

It is not the case that people in Britain have abandoned a belief or an aspiration to get married. It's a real living social institution. People are delaying marriage and probably having more partners before they do get married. Those marriages are also more fragile, and social scientists are studying how different patterns of 'searching' behaviours can contribute to, or undermine, the sustainability of relationships in later life. Many more people than in the past end up bringing-up children on their own which is never easy. People still aspire to stable long-term relationships in a marriage but also a gap is opening up between the aspiration and the reality.

Now you may be struck by some parallels between what I've said about jobs and what I've said about relationships. Indeed, there are direct causal links between the two stories. Settling down with your lifetime partner and settling down with a steady job often go together. In our twenties we move around the country as we look for the right job, and that makes it more difficult to sustain a long-term relationship. When you get on your bike to find work it is not likely to be a tandem.

Underneath these changes in jobs and relationships there is a single story. We are more demanding, you might even say consumerist, in our approach both to jobs and to relationships. We have high expectations and we spend much longer trying to get the decision right. But after a much longer period of experiment and mobility than in the past most of us do make that decision. After we search we settle. That is because there are deep sources of human satisfaction which come from long-term commitments and trust.

It was once said of libertarianism that it was a theory for childless immortals. And that of course is what you feel like in your twenties. It is the period in our lives to which the doctrines of libertarianism are ideally suited. The world is your oyster. You don't have any ties. You don't use public services. Everything is mobile.

That stage of the lifecycle is celebrated in the media. It drives the images in our advertisements. After all a lack of attachments and a high disposable income tend to go hand in hand. Much of the media reports this lifestyle, because this lifestyle supports much of the media. It is what gives London and other great cities their pace and energy and creativity. It is an important part of people's lives and it is getting longer. We must not ignore it or shun it. We should recognise this part of people's lives but it remains just one stage of the life-cycle. We are the One Nation Party, but we mustn't be the One Generation Party.

Lessons for the Left and Right

What does this mean for politics? Let me start with a quote that expresses the fear of many Conservatives today:

"All fixed, fast, frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with his sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind."

It just so happens that the words I quoted came from the Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx. But it captures the fear marriages and jobs for life are on the way out, destroyed, supposedly, by capitalism.

For the Left, one of the most sophisticated and respected Blairite thinkers, Anthony Giddens, has taken some of these social changes and exaggerated them. He thinks we are indeed in a post-modern world of shifting loyalties and thinner relationships - just as Marx had predicted. These post-modernists put "jobs for life" or "marriage" into quotation marks - a deadly way of detaching a concept from the social reality behind it. They are presented as dead traditions when really they are still the experience of many and the aspiration of even more. In Giddens' world we are endlessly choosing new social roles through our lives and never settling. More recently, Charles Leadbetter has developed a similar argument and presented it as an optimistic view of the future.

Such a theory of the end of permanent attachments could well appeal to Blairites in the process of remaking their own Party. If they were busy detaching their Party from its roots, we should not be surprised that they embraced a theory which said that was what the rest of us were doing as well. But it is a misunderstanding of Britain. Blair's attempts to reconstruct Britain around this theory of jostling, shifting, temporary lifestyle choices is out of touch with the reality of the lives and aspirations of most British people.

You won't find much about parents and children in the Third Way. They do not fit in because they bring with them obligations that can't be shed. This may be one reason why Blair's Government has found it so difficult to develop any sort of coherent family policy. Yet the evidence shows that family attachments remain as powerful as ever. Half of British adults with a living mother see her at least once a week. And the latest research shows the extraordinary continuity of "family-centredness". To quote from one ESRC Report: "Family is still seen as more important than friends for the vast majority; 4 out of 5 people would rather spend time with family than with friends."

As Conservatives we understand the power of commitment, trust, and attachment that come with the institution of marriage and we support it. We believe that it is usually best for children to be raised in a two-parent home. Most people still aspire to be married, to raise their children with two parents, and most of these fulfil their aspiration albeit later in life than they used to.

The good news is that the Left is wrong when they claim that we have all abandoned marriage. Most people still want to get married, expect to get married, and do indeed get married. And some of the evidence for the decline of marriage is really evidence for marriage being delayed as people take longer to settle down. That's a consequence of a change in attitudes and expectations that politicians can do nothing about.

The problem that we do need to tackle, however, is the gap between aspiration and reality. People should feel supported and encouraged to sustain long-term relationships through marriage. Instead, all too often they feel that the are battling against a hostile environment. And of course in our poorest areas the breakdown of relationships brings with it a whole host of social problems which have an enormous impact on the quality of peoples' lives as well as increasing the challenges faced by our public services and the people who work in them. If we want to see a strong society, high quality public services, and to bring a resurgence of our most hard-pressed communities we have to recognise the importance of strong families.

In his speech last week, Iain Duncan Smith boldly identified child poverty as one of the giants stalking our country. It is supposed to be an issue that belongs exclusively to the Labour Party. Nick Davies' vivid book on poverty, Dark Heart, has lessons for us all but the blurb on the cover says, "A copy should be sent to every Labour MP". But you can't just think about poverty, as Labour does, in financial terms. The breakdown of the family and the spread of child poverty are inextricably linked. This is a connection which only Conservatives are willing to make.


Many things have changed in the nature of marriage and the labour market in the last 50 years. A generation ago we liberalised our economy and jobs shifted from manufacturing to services. The changes were painful but as a result millions of people were able to share directly in national prosperity by buying their own homes, securing their own funded pensions and buying their own shares.

As the Party of economic change we have to understand the social change that often accompanies it. The economic freedom that people have attained as a result of those changes has had wider effects. Marriage is more about a meaningful personal relationship than an economic necessity for people these days. People are more discerning about the partners they commit to spending the rest of their lives with and more demanding of them once they made that choice.

These social changes do not, however, mean the end of attachment - either in the labour market or our personal lives. We should recognise the good things that flow from the institution of marriage for society as a whole. We should not inadvertently, or even worse deliberately, undermine marriage. And there are ways we can support it directly, as we did before the last Election with the transferable tax allowance.

I believe that people have a powerful urge to be social, to share, to commit to others. They want to build a stable environment for their children. They want to create something worthwhile. These are profound human needs reflected in the way our society has been shaped. We can see it in the way we settle, even now, to long-term jobs. We don't contract with a new employer, let alone start a new career every day. And at a far more profound level it is the yearning for attachment to a partner, embodied above all in the institution of marriage. The problem is that all too often it is politicians who have created an environment which weakens these ties. Virginia Woolf said that 'in or about December, 1910, human character changed.' Many commentators agree, though perhaps they prefer 1963. Much has indeed changed. But fundamental human needs and aspirations have not. We should trust people to fulfil them.

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