How the census can help you to understand your customers


What is the census?

The UK census is one of the broadest and most complete datasets available for public use anywhere in the world. It takes place every 10 years and aims to gather information from every household in the country; this makes it invaluable as a nationwide snapshot and a measure of lifestyle changes over time. The census is created, collected, collated and released by the three government offices covering all of the UK: the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for England and Wales, National Records Scotland (NRS) and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA).

What data does the census collect?

Questions for each census vary to take account of relevant issues and lifestyles at the time but, taking the 2011 Census as an example, the data fields it provides include:

People icon

Headcounts, age, sex and social grade:

  • Headcounts (Population, Adults and Household)
  • Age in 1 year bands
  • Sex Male/Female split
  • Approximate Social Grade (AB, C1, C2, DE)

Cogs icon

How people work:

  • Economic activity describes whether people are employed, self-employed, students, retired or unemployed
  • Method of travel to work shows the mode of transport for people commuting. Whether by foot, train, as a passenger or driver or on other public transport
  • Industry breaks down the work type into 18 categories including Financial and Insurance activities, Agriculture, and Construction
  • Hours worked gives counts for full or part time working split by sex
  • NS-SEC categorises the skill level and responsibility of a job from Higher Managers and Professionals, through Semi-routine occupations to the Long-term unemployed

House icon

How and where people live (and with whom):

  • Usual resident population shows whether people live in households or communal establishments
  • Living arrangements shows if households live as couples or as single people. Some further breakdowns indicate marriages or same sex partnerships or divorced or widowed singles
  • Household composition indicates singles, couples and families along with whether the adults are retired or if the families have dependent or non-dependent children
  • Tenure provides counts on property ownership (outright or mortgaged), rental (social or private)
  • Dwellings, household spaces and accommodation type describes shared dwellings, flats or houses and the number of spaces they have

UK map icon

Country of origin, ethnicity and migration data:

  • Ethnic group counts residents in categories such as White, Chinese, Mixed Ethnic Group, Indian, Black Caribbean or Other Asian
  • Country of birth shows counts for the home nations, Ireland and other EU countries before and after 2001
  • Religion
  • Year of arrival in UK shows whether born in UK or the decade of arrival from 1941 to 2000 or in 3 year sections since 2000
  • Main language detailed shows the common language for a household showing languages as varied as Estonian, Sinhala or British Sign Language as well as the varied Celtic languages and English from the UK

Affluence icon

An indication of affluence and wealth:

  • Car or van availability shows how many cars or vans are in the household
  • Occupation shows level of occupation from manager and director to machine operators and basic occupations
  • Adult or Household life stage is often a better predictor of behaviour than age
  • Persons per room indicates how crowded a dwelling is
  • General health shows the healthiness of the household as very good, good, fair, bad or very bad

When did the most recent census take place?

The Office for National Statistics undertook the most recent census in England and Wales on 21 March 2021. The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) also committed to completing a 2021 census. National Records of Scotland have announced that Scotland's census will take place in March 2022. Results for these census have yet to be released, so in usable terms, the last census was the 2011 Census.

The ONS census was a "digital-first census", meaning people were encouraged to respond online whether via mobile phones, PCs or tablets. The option to complete over the phone was also made available with traditional paper forms remaining as a fallback option.

Why conduct the 2021 Census during a pandemic?

Planning for England’s census was very far advanced when COVID-19 struck and with no obvious end-point for the pandemic in site, preparations continued during lockdown. ONS reported in January 2021 that they had already started to print census questionnaires. One reason for the March date was “to allow sufficient hours of daylight for field officers to work, and avoiding periods when people are likely to be away on holiday”. So a delay would likely have knock the census back a full year with a significant cost of around £360 million. The data impact would also be significant by disrupting the 10-yearly pattern of data collection.

Rather than seeing 2021 as an outlier, the ONS took the stance that a census was vital at this time to ensure that we can understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit on the nation. As such the 2021 Census was not postponed indefinitely to wait for an unknowable "back to normal" date.

Salary heat map and family composition

When will data from the 2021 Census become available?

The short answer is: no time soon. The longer answer is: it depends. Previous census data has taken at least 2 years to be made available and it is released in phases rather than all together. Add into this uncertainty the added delays of a global pandemic, and that data collection for important parts of the British Isles won’t be collected until 2022. On the other hand this is the most digital census to date, which may create labour savings in data processing. We expect data to start trickling out some time in 2023. Once this happens, demographic data providers, like us, will then need time to incorporate and model the data into a useable format.

What can I do in the meantime to keep demographic data fresh?

Well, most demographic data providers use other data to supplement census data to both add new dimensions to it and keep it more up-to-date. For our own P2 People & Places demographic data, we use ONS mid year population estimates to keep our data current and accurate. So if you’d like to see what we can do to add depth to your customer or audience data, please get in touch.

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