The Life Project: The Extraordinary Story of Our Ordinary Lives by Helen Pearson - review by Eric Kaufmann

Eric Kaufmann

Everyday People

The Life Project: The Extraordinary Story of Our Ordinary Lives


Allen Lane 399pp £20

Did your mother drink during pregnancy? Did your parents divorce? How often were you read to as a child? Did you pass your 11 Plus? What about your DNA? If you ever wondered whether the circumstances of your early life steered you along a particular path, look no further than this book. In it, science writer Helen Pearson glances back across the seventy years and seventy thousand lives captured by Britain’s world-leading series of cohort studies, in which successive generations were tracked from birth to death. These time capsules are a goldmine of social history, allowing researchers to unpick how genetic and social conditions seal our fate. It’s as though Britain’s pulse was taken in 1946, then again in 1958, 1970, 1991 and 2000.

Cohort studies sample the social and medical characteristics of a particular generation at regular intervals over many decades. Why do we need them? Census and hospital records already tell us that death rates are higher in the northwest than the southeast of England, while low-cost surveys show that many wealthy folk attended private school.

The problem is that the censuses and surveys offer snapshots of life but don’t answer the proverbial question: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did private school make you rich, or does your wealth reflect the fact that your parents could afford to send you to private school

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