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The 1939 Register: where did Britain sleep as war was declared?

The register brings the texture of one night 76 years ago within touching distance. What will happen for other records like it?

The 1939 Register is a “wartime Domesday Book”. Vast and yet intimate, it is a picture of precisely where people in England and Wales slept on the night of 29 September 1939. Forty-one million handwritten entries record jobs, date of birth and marital status, filling books that would reach twice the height of St Paul’s Cathedral if stacked together. Refugee children who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe are listed with their adoptive families. The “Cambridge Five” Soviet spies are there. Ian Fleming gives his occupation as “stockbroker”, not novelist; Oswald Mosley is an “ex-officer, ex-MP”.

In the online version, which was published last week, the Register is feted as a powerful tool for family history. And why not: 1939 was the year when Virginia Woolf – sleeping at her country home in Sussex on the night of the 29th – wrote: “Is not anyone who has lived a life, and left a record of that life, worthy of biography – the failures as well as the successes, the humble as well as the illustrious?”

It brings the texture of one night 76 years ago within touching distance. But there is an enormous distance between the way it was made and the way it is now being sold. During National Registration Week, data was gathered by 65,000 public enumerators – often unemployed office workers – who delivered questionnaires and wrote them up. “Were it not for the fact that there is a war on,” the Daily Mail said on 26 September, “Mrs Great Britain would not be taking kindly to the man presenting himself on her doorstep this week.”

When an attempt was made to introduce a national registration scheme during the Great War, it was smeared as “Prussification”, an adoption of German bureaucratic values. In 1939, parents were just as nervous about drawing attention to children who might be conscripted. It worked the second time because it was linked to ration books. Children not on the Register might not be conscripted, but neither would they eat. Rather grimly, civil servants referred to the Register’s success as “parasitic vitality”.

After 1945, the information was used to found the National Health Service. The originals are held at the National Archives in Kew, with the records of both the living and recently dead redacted. But as of 2 November, 28 million records have been released online by the family history company Findmypast. Searching is free, but to look at the documentation for one household costs £6.95. Fifteen households costs £54.95.

Ancestry is a lucrative business. Andrew Marr, who has been promoting the resource out of enthusiasm rather than any paid brand ambassadorship, tweeted: “hardworking geeks spent two years digitising this . . . a huge job. Don’t they deserve to be paid?” Certainly, the National Archives don’t have funding enough to support this sort of undertaking any more.

Two days after the Register was published, the government released its “Snooper’s Charter”, the draft Investigatory Powers Bill. “Spooks have been harvesting our phone and email data for 14 years,” the Mail said.

Rather than a freeze-frame of one night, this would be rolling, documentary footage for future historians. But if they can get hold of this data, it seems likely they’ll have to pay for that, too. On 20 November, consultation closes on the introduction of charges for Freedom of Information requests: the very tool used by one researcher to trigger the release of the 1939 Register. 

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain

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The UK is suffering from an extreme case of generational inequality

Millennials across the developed world are struggling. But the UK stands out. 

 

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”

Joni Mitchell’s lyrics may refer to her first trip to Hawaii, but they could just as easily apply to UK trends in generational living standards that the Resolution Foundation’s Intergenerational Commission has uncovered. That’s particularly so in light of new analysis comparing these trends internationally.

While there are huge living standards differences between high-income countries, there is also much shared ground, with the financial crisis and demographic patterns putting pressure on younger generations’ living standards everywhere. But the UK stands out. With the partial exception of Spain, no other country in living memory has experienced as large a “boom and bust” in generation-on-generation progress across both incomes and home ownership rates.

On incomes, the millennials (born 1980-2000) who have reached their early 30s are just 6 per cent better off than generation X (born 1966-80) when they were the same age. This is very small progress indeed when compared with the progress older generations are enjoying – baby boomers (born 1946-65) in their late 60s are 29 per cent better off than the silent generation (born 1926-1945).

These sorts of slowdowns have occurred in most countries, but not to the same extent. In the US, millennials in their early 30s are doing 5 per cent worse than their predecessors, but this compares to relatively modest 11 per cent gains for generation X relative to the baby boomers. In fact, in the US – despite higher levels of income – the absence of generational progress is what stands out. Typical incomes in the US for those aged 45-49 are no higher for those born in the late 1960s than they were for those born in the early 1920s.

Back to the UK. The “had it then lost it” story is also clear when we look at housing. Our previous research has shown that young people in the UK face much higher housing costs (relative to incomes) than older generations did when they were making their way in the world. In a large part this is driven by the rise and fall of home ownership.UK home ownership rates surged by 29 percentage points between the greatest generation (born 1911-1926) and the baby boomers, but this generation-on-generation progress has been all but wiped out for millennials. Their home ownership rate in their late 20s, at 33 per cent, is 27 percentage points lower than the rate for the baby boomers at the same age (60 per cent).

This fall between generations is much smaller in other countries in which housing is a key areas of concern such as Australia (a 12 percentage points fall from boomers to millennials) and the US (a 6 percentage point fall). As with incomes, the UK shows the strongest boom and bust – large generation-on-generation gains for today’s older cohorts followed by stagnation or declines for younger ones.

Let’s be clear though, the UK is a relatively good place to grow up. Ours is one of the most advanced economies in the world, with high employment rates for all age groups. In other advanced economies, young people have suffered immensely as a result of the financial crisis. For example, in Greece millennials in their early 30s are a shocking 31 per cent worse off than generation X were at the same age. In Spain today the youth (15-30) unemployment rate is still above 30 per cent, over three times higher than it is in the UK.

But, if everything is relative – before the parking lot came the paradise – then the UK’s situation isn’t one to brush away. Small income gains are, obviously, better than big income falls. But what matters for a young person in the UK today probably isn’t how well they’re doing relative to a young person in Italy but how this compares with their expectations, which have been shaped by the outcomes of their parents and grandparents. It’s no surprise that the UK is one of the most pessimistic countries about the prospects for today’s young.

The good news, though, is that it doesn’t have to be like this. In other parts of the world and at other times, large generation-on-generation progress has happened. Building more homes, having strong collective bargaining and delivering active labour market policies that incentivise work are things we know make a difference. As politicians attempt to tackle the UK’s intergenerational challenges, they should remember to look overseas for lessons.