A happy, stable family is something many people strive for. It is still seen as the bedrock of our society. One of the favourite phrases of politicians is to refer to “hard-working families”. But what is a typical family in Britain today, and how has it changed?
As the UK has changed technologically, culturally and socially, so has the shape of the family. One of the biggest changes is in the dropping rate of marriage, which has been steadily decreasing for decades, and the increase in co-habiting couples.
The fall in the number of people getting married in recent times is starkly reflected in family statistics. According to the Office of National Statistics in 2013 there were 18.2 million families living in the UK. 68% of these families contain a couple who are married. Meanwhile co-habiting couples have increased vastly. In the last decade alone 700,000 more unmarried couples are living together than in 2003.
Almost half of all children are now born out of wedlock. 25 years ago that figure was just a quarter, and 10 years before that it was only 1 in 10. Conversely, the number of children born to co-habiting, unmarried couples has increased by half a million in just the last decade.
So why is this?
First and foremost it is the decline of religion and the growth in more progressive views about relationships. Unlike a few generations ago there is far less pressure to get married. As religion has diminished so have the expectations regarding relationships that come with it. For the same reason having children outside of marriage is no longer frowned upon, or certainly not as it once was.
Linked to this is how the law has changed to reflect these changes. At one time an unmarried mother would have few rights where children were concerned, something which is no longer the case. In addition, although the current government has made a small attempt to reverse it, the financial rewards in the tax system of being married are far less than they used to be.
But does this matter in terms of the happiness of a family?
Current evidence suggests not. A recent Open University study published in 2014 showed that there was almost no difference between the happiness levels of married couples with or without children, and those couples who were unmarried. Equally no recent study has shown any correlation between marriage and the happiness of the children within a family.
So in the UK today marriage is not the vital part of family life that it once was, but that ultimately it doesn’t seem to matter – because we are as happy as we have always been.