What will the 2021 Census tell us about life after COVID-19?

Where do you stand on the timing of the Census? Over the past few days we have shared a couple of blogs with contrasting views. Today, Prof Nicola Shelton looks into just what the 2021 Census may tell us in these turbulent times. Original article available here.


When the 2021 census was first planned, we thought some of the biggest research questions to emerge from it would be around the effects of Brexit. But while those are still live, researchers and others will be watching with interest to see what this snapshot of Britain in 2021 will tell us about the effects of Covid-19.

It will be two years before new data begins to emerge from the March 2021 Census – and by then we hope the world will be quite a different place. But what will the ONS Longitudinal Study tell us about the pandemic, and about the changes it has wrought on all our lives?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

One of the biggest questions will, sadly, be around mortality data. While the grim daily totals have told us about those who have died, and what their current or last occupation was when they died, the LS can link that mortality data with other information about the whole lives of those who have died. Because we have information going back to 1971, we can know where those people lived, what jobs they had done and what types of families and households they had lived in. It will give us a much richer picture of the complex reasons why some groups appeared to suffer more than others in the pandemic.

After the 2021 census we’ll have information about those who survived and about those who didn’t, and we’ll be able to link that with information those people gave in the 2011 census. As a result we’ll be able to say a lot about the social determinants of Covid-19 mortality, as well as mortality from other causes. For instance, what effect did the pandemic have on deaths from cancer?

Inequality in mortality

We know there has been massive inequality in Covid-19 mortality – your age, where you live, your ethnicity, your job, your prior health and your gender all have a bearing on how likely you are to catch it and how likely you are to survive if you do.  

Life expectancy

Another big question we’ll be asking is whether our life expectancy has shortened. Over the past 50 years we had got used to the idea that our lives were growing longer, and while this appeared to have stalled in recent years it may now have gone into reverse. 

The ONS uses the LS to create life expectancy data and modelling by academics using other datasets suggests life expectancy has fallen as a result of the pandemic. We’ll be able to test that and to see in more detail which groups are the most affected by any changes.

We’ll be able to see, for instance, the extent to which it was feasible for people to self-isolate within their homes, and how that affected their chances: did they have enough bedrooms and other rooms to really stay separate?

The government instructions seemed to require a separate bathroom and a separate kitchen, yet the number of homes with more than one kitchen must be very small. 

Similarly, we know men have been more at risk than women – but is that because they’ve been in higher risk occupations? We know that men who worked in elementary occupations, in caring or in other service jobs had high rates of Covid-19 death. And with the LS, we can look not just at the last occupation of the deceased but also at the jobs they had previously.

Inequality in health

We also need to know more about how health has changed. Has there been an increase in the reporting of long-term physical and mental conditions and how has general health changed? 

Households and families

During the past year there’s been a real focus on inequality in the way households are constructed and the risks to people of living in intergenerational households have been highlighted. 

We know that London has the worst overcrowding in England, and that London has been hit by some of the very highest levels of Covid-19, particularly in certain ethnic groups. What are the links? We should be able to unpick that in much more detail. 

Boomerang adults

It could be that overcrowding has been exacerbated by younger people moving back in with their parents, for instance. Maybe they had to move to work, but now they’ve lost their job or can work from home and would rather do so in their parental home than in a city that’s largely closed. 

Strain

Then there are the opposite pressures – those caused by family breakdown, rather than by family reunion. Spending all day every day with your partner your children, parents, your siblings, your cousins, your flatmates, could put a strain on your emotions. It will be interesting to see how families and households are structured going forwards and whether the pandemic has led to a dissolution of relationships at a greater rate than previously. Or perhaps it’s brought people closer – some couples have had to choose whether to live together because they haven’t been able to meet while living in separate households.

Caring

It could be that adults especially in mid-life may have increased the care they are providing perhaps for their ageing parents and for others providing care for those with physical or mental health conditions as non-residential care facilities closed.

Workplaces

Covid-19 has had a major effect on almost all our working lives, and this is one respect in which the Census might be less informative than past ones – for most people the place of work in this Census will simply be ‘at home.’ 

But the detail of just who was able to work at home – and who wasn’t – will be one of the questions we’ll be able to answer. We’ll be able to see how that differed by social class, by ethnicity, by age, by geographic location.  The LS will enable us to go back in time and answer more of the ‘why’ questions about people’s working lives: why did some individuals end up working in certain places, and how was that linked to their health outcomes? 

The future of work

Hopefully, we’ll learn something from the census about the future of our working lives – will people continue to work at home going forward? Perhaps March 2021 will be just a snapshot of an abnormal situation which will soon return to normal – but perhaps in 2031 we’ll see that some of those changes have been embedded and have become permanent. Or perhaps we’ll conclude that  2021 looked rather as 2031 would have looked without the pandemic – but that the world has moved on faster than we expected it to.  

We know that some people became unemployed in the pandemic. Maybe in future they’ll be working in sectors that were growing anyway; maybe the sectors that don’t recover were going to shrink in any case. 

And what about people’s decisions about whether to stop working, or to return to work? Some may have decided, as a result of the pandemic, to retire earlier. Maybe they’ll have moved to be nearer to family from whom they’ve been isolated over this past year. And maybe some who had retired will have decided to return to work as a result either of boredom, need or demand – both education and the health service have been keen to attract those who have left. Because the LS looks at people’s lives over time, it can tell us more of a story about their journeys.

Where we live

In terms of how we live and work, the government in England decided to offer a large Stamp Duty incentive to people to move house, in response to forecasts that the housing market would be depressed in 2020. We will be able to look at the kinds of people who’ve moved house during the pandemic, based on where they lived just one year ago.  We’ll have information about the sort of housing people lived in before and after they moved, and we’ll be able to ask if certain locations became more attractive: for instance, did more people retire to the coast; did some small towns become more popular destinations as more people permanently abandoned the daily commute?

The absence of a presence

And what about international migration? We won’t be able to see details of those who may have left because of the pandemic, or because of Brexit for that matter. But we may find certain types of people not in the data. Maybe many of the young and mobile will have relocated to work in other parts of the world: we won’t know where they are,  but we will know where they were in 2011 and we may find them not here in 2021. We’ll be able to look at who they were by their age, by their occupation, their gender, their ethnicity,  where they were living in the UK and  whether they were working from home back in 2011. And we’ll know the types of organizations they were working in. And did Brexit push forward retirement to the sun perhaps for those who had been planning that later in life?  

The census will tell us whether large number of skilled people in certain occupations have perhaps left the country because the employment opportunities within the EU were greater than those in the UK. 

The big questions 

There will be major issues to be addressed, especially given the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. Are those who have had a rough deal in 2021 the same people who by and large have had a rough deal for many decades previously? Has the pandemic increased inequality? Or has it led, in fact, to a ‘levelling down’? 

I’m excited to do research looking at Covid-19 mortality, but I’m very concerned about some of the things that we might find. I think the LS data from the 2021 Census will give us a powerful look at how the country has changed in the 10 years since 2011, but also how it’s changed in the last 12 months. I fear we’ll see bad news on inequalities, but my last hope is that there’ll also be some positive news of the ways in which the pandemic has given us all some new agency and determination over our own lives.


Nicola Shelton (@drnjshelton), Professor of Population Health at UCL, is the Head of the Health and Social Surveys Research Group. She is the director of CeLSIUS, the Centre for Longitudinal Study Information and User Support of the ONS Longitudinal Study.


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