The future of the census

There has been talk in the media recently about the possibility that the upcoming 2021 census for England and Wales will be the last one.  Rising costs are cited, with an estimate that next year’s census, despite being the first to be taken primarily online, is likely to cost £1 billion.

For us as genealogists and family historians, the census is one of the most important records, providing us with a ten-yearly check-in on each of our ancestral families, and a useful comparison against birth, baptism, marriage and death records.  There is no doubt that the period from 1911 to 1841 is the most straightforward period for genealogical research.

Of course, the current discussion is a reminder that the census never existed for our benefit.  Those benefits to us are just a happy side effect.  Its purpose was, and remains, to help the government and local authorities to plan services with a reasonably up to date snapshot of what the country looks like.  With every passing decade, as our society has developed, become more complex and diverse, and as our attitude towards providing for diverse needs has changed, the questions on the census have become ever more detailed.  Nevertheless, as a genealogist, I was mortified when I first heard the headlines.

Digging around a little deeper, I found that in fact no decision has been taken about the future of the census.  Indeed Professor Sir Ian Diamond, the UK’s National Statistician and head of the Office for National Statistics, has said he would only recommend its termination if he finds a better option.

The issue seems to be centred not just around cost, but also around the effectiveness of a decennial snapshot when the reality is constant and accelerating demographic change.  The possibilities are therefore being explored of collecting the same sort of data but via other existing and constantly updated sources, such as GP registrations, council tax records and driving licences.

Counter to these arguments is the fact that demographers consider the census the ‘gold standard’ of population records.  They point to the inferiority of existing alternative record sources as the means for demographic mapping and planning, voicing concerns about, for example, the administrative difficulties in keeping lists up to date.  Their suggestion is that while their use would be beneficial in supplementing the richness of the decennial census, thereby overcoming the concern about the lengthy gap in updating data in an age of constant change, they are no match for the richness of the census data.  They also point out that as online census return becomes the norm, future costs should reduce.

The review is ongoing and Professor Sir Ian Diamond will give his opinion by 2023.  Ultimately, it will be the government that decides.

What might this mean for the future of family history and genealogy as a hobby?  Well, of course our own research will not be affected, but for future generations, tracing families could be more difficult.  At the very least it would be different, and I draw comfort from the commitment of the demographers to quality and richness of information.  Perhaps for our descendants it will simply be a case of accessing more record sets, each one focusing on a narrower aspect of our lives.  Electoral records, for example, will show all those of voting age living at an address, while GP registers will include children.  Nevertheless, I write this with some trepidation, having checked the online electoral registration record for myself at my current address and noted that a well-known actor of ‘Carry-On’ film fame (now deceased) is listed as having lived here with me!  Although the number of his house was the same as ours, his property was located in a little courtyard leading off the same road but with a different name.  Doesn’t bode well does it!

In fact we may soon find ourselves seeking alternatives to the census.  After the release of the 1921 census (anticipated January 2022), it will be thirty years before the next one.  The 1931 census was destroyed in a fire during World War 2, and the 1941 census was never taken.  Perhaps, in response to our needs, the commercial websites will start to index more of these alternative types of records for our use, and the changes a hundred years hence will be relatively seemless.

Before leaving the topic of the census, although admittedly going off at a complete tangent….
I recently came across an interesting article about a Harvard student who, working with his professor, has cracked the code used by the Incas in their ‘khipu’ textiles: knotted cords used for record keeping.  Gradually, it became clear that these were these were the Inca equivalent of census records. Bearing in mind that the Inca Empire reached its height of power in the 15th- and 16th-centuries, they were centuries ahead of us in this regard.  You can read this fascinating article [here].

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