The Welfare State Generation: Women, Agency and Class in Britain Since 1945

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Welfare State Generation review

By Eve Worth

London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021, 248 pages, hardback £85.00, e-book £76.50

The Welfare State Generation is a methodologically and thematically-sophisticated exploration of the life histories of thirty-six women from birth in the long 1940s to retirement in the mid 2010s. Its centering of oral histories as foundational rather than supplementary to the research, and review of women’s experience across their whole life course, makes the study particularly powerful. The post-war expansion of the welfare state was undoubtedly ‘one of the most transformative political changes of the twentieth century’ and Worth’s is a timely exploration of its impact as those who grew up in it reach older age. But the meta-narrative of the welfare state is so compelling because it emerges organically from the oral testimony as a defining structure throughout these women’s lives, rather than from any preconceived line of enquiry. Their experiences were so ‘intertwined with the history of the state as provider, educator and employer’ that these women can legitimately be defined as the ‘welfare state generation’ (p1).

Worth contends that oral historians often dwell on memories of youth, inadvertently perpetuating a lack of interest in middle and older age. For welfare state generation women that has often meant a focus on girlhood and marriage in the 1950s and 1960s, or on 1968 as a moment of radical activism. While feminist historians have shifted that focus to wider consideration of the changing nature of the female self in the long 1960s, these women’s trajectories have rarely been pursued into the 1970s and beyond. Worth not only follows their journeys right into the twenty-first century, but also builds on trends in British historiography away from analysis of personal testimony as purely narrative construction of the self. Emphasising the dialectic between the individual and the social, she powerfully demonstrates how oral testimony can re-orient our perspectives on social, political and economic change in post-war Britain. The diverse range of social classes among her interviewees allows Worth to challenge existing interpretations not only along gender but also class lines. Although the concept of the generation is central to her thesis, she is clear that there was no unified generational experience across the life course.

Where the monograph covers more familiar territory of girlhood and school leaving opportunities, it is with an emphasis on this gendered and classed experience of girls’ relationship with the welfare state. The oral testimonies tell evocative stories of liberation and constraint. Growing up with the concepts of a universal right to healthcare, equality of opportunity in education and increased access to paid work, these ‘daughters of the state’ had a sense of their own value within society. They took risks around education, jobs and marriage that would have been unthinkable to their mothers. Yet there was a good deal of gender and class hierarchy baked into the system. Interviewees shared unsettling experiences in the middle-class, masculine spaces of grammar schools and universities, and a sense of disjuncture between expanding education on the one hand and narrow, feminine occupational choices on the other.

Worth’s most original contributions come in chapters on these women’s lives in middle and older age. Weaving life histories with social surveys and census data, she skilfully illuminates women’s opportunities as both contingent upon the environment created by social and economic policy and shaped by their own agency too. Exploration of the little-considered second phase of welfare expansion under Wilson’s government in the late 1960s makes a vital contribution to growing historiographical challenge to the masculinised trope of the 1950s and 1960s as the golden age of social mobility. When interviewees’ testimonies are placed centre stage, it is the 1970s that are a pivot moment, these women grabbing new opportunities in adult education and diversified welfare roles at exactly the moment they were evaluating their mid-life options. Theirs was a more volatile than linear life course, with post-compulsory education, rather than grammar school and university, a key indicator of their social mobility. Worth acknowledges feminist critique of the post-war welfare state as discriminatory towards women in its very set-up, but marshals oral testimony to profile women as agents of change within the state, not just subjects constrained by it. Interviewees shared their individual and collective approaches to doing politics through work in decentralised state structures that afforded them genuine power to influence change in their workplace. This emphasis on interventions for equality within the state, rather than through women’s liberation activism beyond it, builds on a historiographical shift away from reading social change as simply a result of feminism towards understanding the wider social, political and economic contexts that shaped women’s lives and values.

The extent to which women’s agency was contingent upon structural expansion is apparent where Worth provides the first holistic account of the gendered impact that Conservative cuts had on workers within the welfare state from the late 1980s. Interviewees’ accounts of devaluation of their expertise, managerialism and loss of autonomy express a disillusionment, insecurity and class disjuncture that chimes with feminist writings at the time on class, gender and mobility. Worth challenges the focus on men’s loss of occupational work in narratives of post-1945 employment. The centrality of work to these women’s identity meant that their de-professionalisation impacted their lives just as significantly as deindustrialisation impacted male workers. She breaks similar ground in demonstrating how women found the transition to retirement no less disruptive than men. Interviewees spoke of themselves as self-employed or offering their expertise in voluntary roles in older age rather than as retired. Contrary to contemporary discourse about this generation hoarding the gains of the welfare state for themselves, Worth interprets their persistence in exercising their agency in society as a sense of responsibility to ensure that the social security net they grew up with is there for younger generations.

The Welfare State Generation provides a masterclass in the fundamental challenge that oral history can make to existing analyses of social and political change. It authoritatively takes its place at the forefront of current historiography acknowledging the rising number of women in paid work as one of the grand narratives of post-war British history and offering bold re-conceptualisations of gender, class and social mobility in contemporary Britain.

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