26 Feb 2014

Why the 1970s were better than you think

The 1970s get a bad press. Economic ruin, union strife, racism, Jimmy Savile, embarrassing music – the list is endless. But was this decade really as bad as it’s portrayed?

The decade from hell – aka the 1970s – is back in the spotlight following the revelation that pro-paedophile campaigners managed to infiltrate the National Council for Civil Liberties during this period.

An awkward moment for Britain’s foremost human rights organisation (now called Liberty), whose director Shami Chakrabarti issued a statement expressing her “disgust and horror” about what had happened.

Combined with the paedophile crimes of the late DJ Jimmy Savile, it would be tempting to assume that the 1970s were a time when sexual morality was in crisis. It certainly looks that way from a distance, but there was a great deal more to the decade than dirty older men pursuing young girls.


The decade began with the equal pay act and the assumption that women should receive the same pay and benefits as men if the work they do is broadly similar.

Since then, the pay gap between the sexes has narrowed, although women’s hourly earnings still lag behind men’s by more than 15 per cent. But at least women have legal redress if they believe they are being discriminated against because of their sex.

Five years later, there was the sex discrimination act, prohibiting unequal treatment in employment, education and training on the grounds of sex or marital status.

We should also not forget that income inequality was at its lowest in the mid to late-1970s, while today Britain is one of the world’s most unequal countries.

The economy

Think of the 1970s and the images are gloomy: the miners’ strike, the three-day week, industrial unrest, rising inflation, the government going cap in hand to the IMF for a bailout.

It is impossible to pretend that these were easy times, but unemployment was far lower than today. When it hit 5 per cent in the mid-1970s, it was widely seen as “a catastrophe” and “a huge national problem”, Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, told Channel 4 News.

It is now at a “low” of just above 7 per cent and this is seen as good news by the government and the Bank of England.

The heatwave

Those growing up in the 1970s will never forget the 1976 heatwave – seemingly endless days of blazing sunshine and after-school trips to the local open-air swimming pool.

Bliss was it that summer to be alive, with temperatures reaching record levels.

Okay, there was also a severe drought, water rationing, forest fires, crop failures and a rise in food prices, but you cannot have everything.

Foreign holidays

For those enjoying the heat, Britain was the place to be in 1976, but there were other options.

Affordable foreign holidays took off in the 1970s.

In 1971, according to Abta, there were 9.5m overseas trips (most of them holidays).

By 1980, this had risen to 17.5m.


Some people think it is big and clever to laugh at 1970s music. They might have a point when it comes to Showaddywaddy, and some of the stage costumes were outlandish.

But there has never been a better decade for British music: from the Rolling Stones at their Exile on Main St best, T Rex, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie to the Clash and the Sex Pistols.

For those who don’t like loud guitars, there was also soul, funk and disco. And for those unimpressed by any of this, tough: stick to One Direction.

Life outdoors

In the 1970s, there were no PCs, laptops, tablets or smartphones, which might explain why but there was less obesity. The outdoor life was something to be celebrated and enjoyed, not shunned in favour of a warm sofa.

The latest research in the Lancet shows that in the 1960s, just 1 per cent of men and 2 per cent of women in England were obese, while today a quarter of adults are in this category.

Tam Fry, spokesperson for the National Obsesity Forum, puts this down to the wrong kind of food, the use of labour-saving devices and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.

“The 70s was a walk in the sun as far as today is concerned. The difference between now and the 70s is like the difference between chalk and cheese,” he told Channel 4 News.

One last point: with only three television channels, there was also less reason to stay glued to a screen. It was not until 1982 that Channel 4 was born.