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National child study: children’s dreams for the future 50 years on

The National Child Development Study (NCDS) is 60 this year, and some of the people taking part have been looking back to see whether what their 11-year-old selves imagined their lives would be like ever matched up to reality. The study has been following the lives of more than 17,000 people who were born in a single week of 1958, collecting information about their lives, and informing government policy on areas such as education, employment, housing and health.

In 1969, when they were all 11, the study asked more than 10,000 participants to write an essay with the title ‘Imagine you are 25‘. Almost 50 years later, with those children now reaching 60, researchers contacted some of the participants to see if they fulfilled their childhood dreams.

Back then, many of the boys wrote about becoming policemen, footballers and soldiers, while a number of girls expected to become nurses, hairdressers and air stewardesses. Other ideas covered space travel, people living on the moon, England being under the sea, or desires to travel the world, or become inventors and entrepreneurs.

One participant, Steve, had a difficult upbringing, and predicted that he would be a policeman by the time he was 25. He enjoyed a successful career in insurance and then set up his own business. Another participant, Clare, expected to become a nurse, but having discovered her artistic talents during her school years, went on to get an art degree. She went on to work in social services, but after raising three children, re-trained as an art teacher – a job she did for more than 20 years before her retirement.

Similarly, Sally also imagined that she would be a nurse and, while her father was a doctor, at the time she didn’t think girls could pursue that as a career. However, she did become a doctor, as did two of her children. Nigel expected that he would be an army corporal by the time he was 25, but instead worked in various professions, before feeling settled as a carpenter and builder.

One 11-year old, Paul, wrote about becoming a lawyer when he reached 25, in a ‘day-in-the-life’ account of his future plans which researchers described as “unique”. His flair for writing allowed him to pursue a career in journalism, working for the Telegraph and Daily Mail. Meanwhile, Jackie wrote about becoming a hairdresser and enrolled on a hairdressing course before she and her family relocated to a different part of the country. Having given up her course, she worked in a bank and held various jobs until finishing work to spend time with her family and grandchild.

You can access these essays through the UK Data Service.

The National Child Development Study (NCDS) is a continuing longitudinal study, available through the UK Data Service, that seeks to follow the lives of all those living in Great Britain who were born in one particular week in 1958. Conducted by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), the aim is to improve understanding of the factors affecting human development over the whole lifespan. It collects information on physical and educational development, economic circumstances, employment, family life, health behaviour, wellbeing, social participation and attitudes.

Members’ participation in the study involved surveys, health checks and cognitive assessments as well as the essays. Professor Alissa Goodman, Director of CLS, says, “The information they’ve provided has helped to improve the lives of British people, by informing policy and practice in such areas as health, education, parenting and employment.”

Findings from the NCDS have had a major impact on government policy and public services. Data from this study, for example, were used to conclude that smoking during pregnancy reduces babies’ weight and increases the risk of infant death – prompting the Health Education Council to launch a public health campaign to stop pregnant women smoking and encouraging doctors to change the advice they gave to patients. The NCDS has also been part of the largest ever investigation into the genetic underpinnings of common medical conditions such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and coronary heart disease.

The research on these essays doesn’t end here. A team of researchers, led by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, is analysing all the essays to examine whether the language they used may have predicted how life would turn out for them. This includes looking at certain words possibly being predictive of good health, cognitive function, and level of physical activity in later life and also looking at which participants moved up or down the social ladder (and the reasons behind this).

Further information about the NCDS can be found on the Centre for Longitudinal Studies website.

Read more on the 1958 National Child Development Study at and The Times news article featuring three of the participants’ stories.