Statistics to gladden the heart

More smokers, trees and cars: the latest social trends fill Paul Barkerwith optimism

I try hard to be a pessimist. But when I was reading the last Social Trends of the century, cheerfulness kept breaking in. Surprisingly, the Office for National Statistics has produced a good antidote to millennial gloom.

All the usual suspects are here. The poor are still poor (though about half of them move out of the lowest band of income every year). Regional disparities are still enormous. If you live in Cornwall - or Blackpool - your average earnings will be less than £300 a week. (So much for the charms of tourism as a form of economic regeneration.) In south-east England, your average earnings will be more than £400 - almost as high as people working in Aberdeen (£440). And whatever happens to incomes, wealth remains more or less untouched, down the years, by any form of redistribution.

But money, though nice, isn't everything. And it is important not to get bogged down in relativities and differentials. These are deeply locked into the social structure. Absolute changes may make more difference to most people's lives.

The much criticised NHS, for example, must be doing something right. Life expectancy continues to grow, at about two years every decade for men, and a year and a half for women (who started ahead in this particular race). And infant mortality has almost halved in the past 20 years. These are the two best yardsticks of the quality of national life. Nutrition, education and the rise in income even among the poorest all helped the health service deliver the goods.

The family, also, is not quite as frail as commentators make out. For the right, its supposed collapse marks the end of civilisation as we know it. For the left, the family has often been seen as the tie that trammels freedom. Both the fear and the hope are premature. (After all, the family has survived every sling and arrow, including the hostility of the early church, for thousands of years.) Couples may be marrying later. They may sometimes not marry till the woman is pregnant. Some of them end in the divorce courts. Still, four out of every five children are brought up in a family headed by a couple. And 90 per cent of these couples are married to each other.

This is yet more good news. Every study shows that the life chances - from birth onwards - of children raised by a couple much worse than those raised by a lone parent. Remember that Social Trends and I are both talking averages. There are plenty of exceptions to the rule, especially if you have money. But we are talking about the odds. The 100-to-1 outsider sometimes wins the Derby. This doesn't mean the bookies got it wrong.

I am cheered up by Social Trends' evidence of sheer bloody-mindedness. No one wants a goodie-goodie society. I haven't smoked for years, and would never start again. But there is something attractively resilient about the rise in smoking among teenagers. Consider the battery of advice, government health warnings and chit-chat about role models they have had to overcome. What is the point of being young if you can't annoy your elders?

Environmentalists have replaced communists as the great believers in human malleability. Social Trends does not support this. People may be told, time and again, that they ought not to be using their cars. But they continue to. Nor do fiscal penalties easily deter them. When the tolls for the Dartford and Severn crossings were put up well ahead of inflation, traffic increased. People are not using their cars for fun, but for convenience. And once they've got them, they keep on driving. The distance travelled by rail hardly changed between 1961 and 1997. But travel by car and van rose by almost 300 per cent. The genie of mobility is impossible to cram back into the bottle.

The landscape is much more malleable than people. (More or less none of it in Britain is "natural" in any obvious sense.) Woodland has doubled this century, to cover about 10 per cent of Britain's land. In recent years, fewer conifers have been planted than broad-leaved trees.

The greatest source of gloom, usually, is to assume that present trends will always continue. (As in: "If we build roads at the present rate, the whole of southern England will be under concrete.") According to some early forecasts, based on the first trends, almost the entire sexually active population should now be dying of Aids. It's a general rule, in reading journalism, that any sentence containing the word "exponential" is a lie. In 1997 the total number of Aids-related deaths was 654.

From the 1950s to 1982, cinema attendances fell and fell, to a low point of 54 million tickets. There seemed to be nowhere to go but out. Then the suburban multiplex was imported from America - handy for cars, pleasant for families, welcoming to women on their own. The trend of the previous 30 years was broken. In 1997, 124 million tickets were sold. Without hen parties at multiplexes, The Full Monty wouldn't have become that year's top-earning film, taking £44.9 million at the box office.

All is not for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Nor is life every day, in every way, getting better and better. Averages can hide as much as they reveal. But Social Trends is a useful winter woolly against the despair brought on by reading, or hearing, too many news headlines.

Browsing through these charts and tables made me decide I am a pessimistic optimist. For most people, most of the time, things are not as bad as they are painted. Which is just as well - because it can take a hell of a long time to make them a great deal better.

Paul Barker is a senior fellow of the Institute of Community Studies. "Social Trends" 1999 edition is published by the Stationery Office at £39.50