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Households And Families, Attitudes, Conclusion

Switzerland is a highly segmented society. Marital behavior, divorce, and fertility have varied significantly by language regions and religious denomination. In addition, regional differences in family law and social policies, which are strong due to the far-reaching autonomy of the cantons (administrative and geographic units analogous to states or provinces), have played an important role in this respect (Sommer and Höpflinger 1989; Fux 2002a).

Switzerland can be characterized by its early modernization of family and household structures as well as of marital and reproductive behavior. Socioeconomic and cultural factors favored the early demographic shift to the nuclear family. The same conditions probably influenced the early diffusion of contraception (Fux 2002a). Marriage rates were significantly lower than they were in most other European countries from the nineteenth century up to the 1980s. Since then, first marriage rates have tended to converge with those of the other European countries.

Switzerland has always had comparatively high ages at marriage and high proportions of people remaining single. Differences among countries in men's and women's ages at first marriage and mother's age at first birth have grown in recent years. In 1999, the mean age of women at first marriage was 27.7 years. The divorce rate in the past was continuously higher than the European average, possibly because of comparatively liberal divorce law. Since the 1970s, Switzerland's divorce rates have tended to become more like those of other European countries. However, a total divorce rate of 50 per 100 initial marriages in 1999 is still one of the highest in Europe.

The rise and fall of marital birth rates in Switzerland follows the European average very closely (Lüscher and Engstler 1991; Fux 1994). Total fertility rates fluctuated at 1.5 (1999). In 1999, the age at first birth stood at 28.5 years and the mean age at childbearing (any child) at 29.7 years. By contrast, out-of-wedlock births have remained constant at a comparatively low level. No more than 10 out of 100 births were registered as extramarital. The number of couples remaining childless, however, is rapidly increasing. Among all (married and unmarried) women born in 1963, 27.9 percent remain childless. This is one of the highest rates in Europe (Fux and Baumgartner 2000).

Pragmatic accommodation strategies rather than fundamentally conservative behavior and beliefs reflect what might appear to be conflicting trends: Families in Switzerland were early adopters of modern family and household structure but also retained traditional values and attitudes. Switzerland's particular characteristics are influenced by several factors. First, couples have to accommodate barriers produced by a lean welfare state that force them to find individual solutions for the organization of family life (Coenen-Huther et al. 1994; Fux 1997, 2001b; Fux and Baumgartner 2002). The welfare state also influences the low rate of out-of-wedlock births and the comparatively high and increasing age at marriage and at first births, as well as the increasing celibacy and proportion of couples remaining childless.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural Aspects