Thursday, April 24, 2014

Restoration Nation

What online data can tell us about our attitudes and behaviours in an uncertain climate

Back in 2009, in the depths of the recession, I carried out an analysis of the hopes and fears of the nation as they are reflected in searches on Google, arguably the largest, most honest and unselfconsious focus group in the world. Titled ‘Chin Up Britain’ it was a testament to the spirit of resilience and an emerging trend towards creativity and self-expression in contrast to the media depiction of us as a cowed and passive people receptive only to hysterical headlines and deep discounts.  My next paper, Reset Britain,  written in 2011, when we were able to look back at the recession proper but look forward to an indefinite period of austerity, showed how we had grown up and wised up.  We were determined not to be caught out again, with a growing cynicism towards once-trusted institutions, and an increasing awareness of our power as consumers.

So now, looking at the data again today, what has changed in recent  years and what can it tell us about our attitudes and aspirations for the future?   Now that it seems to be an accepted fact that we are officially ‘in recovery’ and the media feeds us a steady diet of economic growth and an optimistic future, does the data bear out this assertion? 

 What’s worth noting before we look at the data is that Google changed its geographical assignment of search terms in January 2011. This means that when a chart spans pre and post January 2011, there is often a small vertical jump in the data, but any upward and downward movements after that point are an accurate depiction of trends.

Let’s start by looking at our emotional health, as reflected in our Google searches for stres and depression

What’s particularly interesting is that as I found in my last two papers, searches for anxiety actually went down during the recession.  But since early 2011, interest in has been markedly higher.   In fact, searches for anxiety are now 50% higher than three years ago and the highest peak was January 2014.   So perhaps it’s true after all that a period of crisis, in which we accept that times are bad, is actually good for our mental health whereas the current climate of not knowing what the future holds, is more demanding to our emotional well-being.


Yet, this uncertainty does not appear to extend to our view of ourselves as employees. When we compare searches for  ‘minimum wage’ and ‘redundancy’ there is evidence that we are increasingly confident of our job security. 

What this chart shows is that searches for minimum wage having dropped significantly between 2008 and 2009, have climbed steadily ever since as our confidence as employees has risen.  In fact, searches are as high as they have ever been.   During the mid-winter of the recession, when our fears of redundancy were at their peak, we weren’t going to start asking our employers awkward questions about wages or encouraging our union to lobby for more but the last couple of years have seen those concerns recede.  

Let’s next take the issue of Zero Hours, which has hit the headlines in the last year.  News that a million British workers could potentially be affected by these controversial employment contracts caused a sharp spike in searches, but interest, although it died away very quickly, has been maintained at around 20% of the initial surge.  So what this might imply is that although 80% have lost interest, a more committed 20% remains.  The classic 80/20 rule might apply here.  These people could be our Zero Hours activists of the future. 

Now let’s look at the employment situation as reflected in searches for jobs in the NHS, the UK’s large public sector employer. 

What this shows is that demand for jobs in the NHS steadily rose, year on year, reaching a marked peak during the recession, perhaps because work in this sector was seen as more secure.  But the prospect of cuts to the NHS from 2010 onwards caused a dramatic dip in demand and the last three years have seen a stabilisation at a much lower level than before the recession.   

Yet if we look at demand for jobs at Tesco, the UK’s largest private employer, we see a very different pattern.  Demand steadily rose during the recession and well into 2012.   

But interest has declined in the last two years, perhaps as we feel that Tesco can’t possibly get any bigger than it is and that opportunities for employment are therefore more limited than they were.   Or perhaps employees of the other big supermarkets and those in similar types of work are staying put and not looking for anything new until the economic future looks more secure.  


When it comes to education, we’ve seen a marked loss of aspiration, with searches at both ends of the academic spectrum, for NVQs and MBAs both suffering a decline since 2011.  Only recently, the Financial Times was bemoaning the decline in MBA applications and the loss to Britain’s entrepreneurial and innovation leadership that will result from it.  At the other end, with a record number of NEETs, young people not in employment, education or training, this situation can only get worse as the drive to achieve competitive advantage declines before people have even started their careers. 

The financial sector data paints a startling picture of where the money has been going in recent years.    The spike in 2009, caused by the stampede to Tracker mortgages when interest rates fell so dramatically, was followed by a high point for fixed mortgages soon after as consumers hoped to take advantage of low rates for the longer term. 

But it’s in the Buy To Let market that we can see the biggest movements.  Fuelled by a booming rental market, as prospective first-time buyers struggle to raise deposits, wealthy people who can afford to invest in property are capitalising on this demand.   As there’s no such thing as a high interest savings account any more, property is the category offering the best return on investment.
There have been similarly dramatic changes around benefits, as changes in policy have fuelled huge spikes in interest, especially in child benefit.  

But it’s interesting that there hasn’t been a similar spike in interest for housing benefit after the introduction of the so-called Bedroom Tax, which did lead to a surge in interest.  So does this mean that people who Googled ‘Bedroom Tax’ don’t claim Housing Benefit?   Are they simply people who have heard the news in the press and social media following up on the headlines?  

Now let’s look at what’s happening in the energy space – and whether recent increases in energy prices have driven interest in alternative sources, be that solar panels or fracking. 

What the data shows is that interest in solar panels enjoyed enormous demand in 2011 and 2012 but this seems to have settled down – although there are still more searches for solar panels than there are for energy prices so it’s clearly still a key area of interest.  We can also see that interest in Fracking and Energy prices, having reached unprecedented heights fell as quickly as it rose although interest has not declined to nothing but is continuing albeit at a lower level. 

Yet, as with Zero Hours contracts, a high proportion of the remaining search demand that has been maintained is likely to be from an engaged activist community.  So although the quantity of interest in fracking has declined, perhaps the intensity has increased, which is mixed news for a healthy debate on the energy situation in Britain today.  This is a debate that the whole nation needs to be involved in, not simply the angry, aggrieved on the one side and the self-interested on the other. 


Now let’s have a look at what’s happening in our personal lives.   Firstly, the news that Caesarian sections now account for 25% of all births, compared to just 12% in 1990 is clearly reflected in the data as there has been a steady upward rise in searches.  But the rate of Epidurals has increased at a similar rate and are now used in 28% of all births, but there is no similar increase in search demand.  

Is this because women tend to plan to have a C-Section and so research it beforehand, so it’s this that’s being reflected in the data rather than the uptake rate itself?  Is it because C-Sections have simply received more publicity with media coverage of celebrities ‘too posh to push’?  Or is it because in our social, sharing world, a tweet or a Facebook post about a C-Section makes for a better story than an epidural?  We are what we post, after all.  

In a similar vein, searches for Breast Implants are testament to the power of the media and the fascinating relationship between bad news stories and increased commercial demand.  

Searches for implants had been chugging along, with the occasional peak caused by minor scare stories and celebrity gossip and a slight dip during the worst of the recession when we had more important things to worry about.  But in January 2012, the story of the faulty PIP implants led to an immediate surge in interest and – surprisingly - demand for clinics, procedures and prices which has been maintained ever since.   So the old adage is true.  No news is bad news after all.   

Of course, it might simply be that thanks to social media we live in a world of soundbites, so if all a person hears is that everyone is talking about ‘Breast Implants’ that’s enough to drive demand regardless of the original context of the story.    

Yet bad news can save lives too.   Look at this fascinating chart showing how the diagnosis and subsequent death of reality star Jade Goody caused an immediate surge in searches for ‘cervical cancer’ symptoms (and also for preventative action such as testing), which has been maintained ever since.  

Without wishing to sound glib, this in fact makes perfect sense.  Jade’s death was the perfect vehicle to reach a demographic generally disengaged from health messaging and whilst the searches today may not be directly attributed to her, they are symptomatic of a shift in grassroots awareness and more importantly, action.  That’s quite a legacy. 

On the subject of legacy, the next chart is a testament to the success of London 2012 in raising the profile of Paralympic sport.  It is widely known that the Paralympic Games of London 2012 enjoyed  a dramatic increase in interest compared to previous Olympics.   

But what is particularly cheering is that interest in disabled issues shows a moderate but significant increase after the games.  For example, searches for  ‘wheelchair rugby’ increased by 60% in 2013 compared to 2011 and those for ‘wheelchair games’ in general by 40%.  Even more heartening, searches on ‘disability rights’ have grown by 14%.  This, surely, is evidence that perceptions of disabled people, and of course, their perceptions of themselves, have entered a new phase of assertiveness and achievement . 

Let’s now look at what Brian Cox has done for physics, with a clearly discernable boost in interest in the subject after years of progressive decline.  What’s even more encouraging is that the pattern of searches clearly matches the academic year, so interest has risen among schoolchildren rather than Brian’s army of female admirers….   

Finally, I’ve talked a lot in this paper about the role the media plays in creating awareness and driving perceptions around an issue.  Guess which one has enjoyed the most success – and therefore influence- over the last few years?   Yep.  It’s The Mail. 

So, to summarise what does the data tell us about the changes wrought by the recession and its subsequent recovery period to the cultural, economic and social fabric of Britain?  Firstly, there’s a sense that the short, sharp shock of the credit crunch was good for us in some ways.  We put our emotional well-being on hold and looked for recession-proof jobs.   But in the last couple of years, there’s a sense that uncertainty has taken its toll on our emotional as well as financial health.
Although our fears of redundancy have faded, we no longer trust the old institutions for jobs or trust our employers to pay the going rate.  No wonder our interest in the minimum wage and zero hours contracts has never been higher. 

There is a sense of resignation to our fate.  We turned to the sun at the end of the recession, hoping that solar power would prove a viable solution to the energy crisis, but that hope seems to have faded and our outrage at rising energy prices was something of a flash in the pan.  And young people have less hope than ever of getting their first home or even job, while landlords are doing a roaring trade.    

Instead, we seem to have turned inwards, looking to superficial feelgood solutions like breast implants, swayed by soundbites and not properly engaging with the news we should be reading and over-reacting to stories that have no direct relevance to us.  

But there is hope.  A generation of young women are not dying unnecessarily from cervical cancer, and more schoolchildren are discovering the wonders of physics, which bodes well for Britain’s competitive advantage in the global innovation arena.  Our enthusiasm for the Paralympics seems to have changed attitudes and perceptions, not only of disabled sport but of disability itself, which can only be good. 
Likewise, issues such as Zero Hours contracts and fracking are starting to build more committed communities around them, to advocate for change, or at least encourage discussion of the issues.  Given that these people are invariably young and idealistic, maybe then, the emerging generation will be facing a much brighter, more active future than the jaded and faded middle-aged can at present envision for themselves and the Restoration Nation that we dreamed of at the end of the recession can be built on firm foundations.

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