If the key to a nation’s priorities lies in its shopping lists, then Britain has been transformed in 50 years from a society spending mainly on basic food and warmth to one transfixed by the delights of leisure and travel, new figures show.
The usually stern face of official government statistics softened yesterday to offer an anniversary glimpse of family spending habits in 1957 – the year an annual household expenditure survey was first launched in a post-ration book Britain.
The contrasts are telling. Five decades ago families were shelling out a third of their weekly spending on food and non-alcoholic drink, with fresh milk and “undefined meat”, including rabbit and tongue, joining cigarettes and bus fares in the top 10 most bought items. That proportion has dropped to just 15% in today’s era of cheap food.
The Office for National Statistics latest spending survey shows how rising disposable incomes mean modern households now devote almost a fifth of their weekly spending to leisure goods and services, such as trips to the cinema, internet links and satellite TV, compared with just 9% spent on entertainment including “admission to dances” in 1957.
The boom in leisure has happened almost entirely in the last 20 years, the ONS says.
The rise of cheap clothing has also seen a fall in the share of household spending on clothes and shoes over 50 years – down from 10% of weekly expenditure to 5% today. The costs of power, despite recent rising fuel bills, have also halved as a proportion of weekly spending: households typically devote 3% of their outlay to fuel and power, compared with 6% in 1957, much of it on coal.
Some spending priorities have remained the same over two or three generations, according to the figures, presented by the typically somewhat staid ONS using mock-ups of 1950s and modern day kitchens, complete with pastry-rolling and packed-lunch-making housewives.
Although changes in the way spending is classified under the survey mean direct comparisons are not possible, housing-related costs head the list of the top 50 categories of spending in both 1957 and 2006, the year of the latest survey.
The burden today is far heavier than 50 years ago, however: while 21st-century Britain may be saving on food, households are typically paying out a fifth of their spending on housing, compared with only 9% when the expenditure survey was launched.
Motoring and travel costs are also up, doubling from 8% to 16% of average weekly expenditure.
The lists of the top 50 commodities and services for households then and now offers a rare window on life in 1950s Britain, and on the significant changes in priorities since then.
Cigarettes have fallen from an astonishing second place, burning up 5.6% of weekly expenditure, to 30th place, at less than 1%, though alcohol is as popular now as then, accounting for 3% of spending.
The bulk of the 1950s list reflects the focus on basic priorities of life in Picture Post Britain, covering milk, meats including poultry, rabbit and liver, coal, bus and trolleybus fares, biscuits and cakes and bread. A little further down the table come hints of the make-do and mend culture now all but lost: radio and television costs, including repairs; the hire and repair of gas appliances; matches, soap and cleaning materials.
Long-gone ladies’ fashions also make an appearance: women’s underclothing and hosiery, 30th in the list of top items, includes corsets and petticoats, while the prominence of hats, gloves and haberdashery, in 35th place, betrays an era of formality now lost.
For today’s householders, the data shows costs of housing dominating the top of the list: mortgage interest payments eat up over 7% of spending on average, while rent and council tax are not far behind. The era of big borrowing is matched by big spending on the diversions needed to forget debts: package holidays and restaurant meals are sixth and seventh in the table, with money spent abroad – barely dreamt of as a category on the 1957 list – featuring just below.
In the age of home decoration, furniture and furnishings are eighth in the list, while power, car costs and television, satellite subscriptions and the internet are all big drains on household income.
In contrast to 1957, food is nowhere in the top 20 items of spending, other than as eating out. There are just 10 food and drink items in the top 50, among them takeaways and snacks, though fresh vegetables, in 34th place, did not appear in 1957.
Some priorities, however, never change: hair products, cosmetics and hairdressing were in 40th place in both surveys.
The 2006 survey – published later than usual due to a change in the way the ONS gathers statistics – also reveals UK households spent an average of £456 a week during 2006, up from £443 in 2005/6.
Housing-related costs were highest, at £143 a week, but outside that transport was the most expensive spending category, at £62 a week, followed by recreation and culture, ranging from televisions and computers to sports and package holidays, and totalling £58 a week.
The costs of housing (excluding mortgage costs, insurance and council tax), fuel and power just exceeded those of food in 2006 for the first time since 2001, pushed up by high fuel bills.
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