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Great Britain

The Nature Of Family Change In Great Britain

Patterns of family formation and dissolution in Britain changed significantly in the latter half of the twentieth century. This is particularly true since the late 1960s when restrictions on contraception, abortion, and divorce were substantially reduced. The 1964 introduction of the contraceptive pill in Britain made contraception easier to obtain and use and much more reliable. The National Health Service (Family Planning) Act of 1967 allowed doctors to give family-planning advice and to prescribe free contraceptives, initially to married women only. The Abortion Act of the same year allowed the termination of pregnancy if two independent medical practitioners agreed that continuance would cause physical or mental risk to the health of the woman or her existing children. And the 1969 Divorce Reform Act made the "irretrievable breakdown" of the marriage the sole grounds for divorce, although it was necessary to prove this in one of five ways (unreasonable behavior, desertion, adultery, two years separation with consent, five years separation without consent). (It should be noted that there are differences across U.K. countries in the timing and operation of these measures. For example, the 1969 Divorce Reform Act applied to England and Wales, and Scotland did not introduce similar reforms until 1976.)

These measures are still largely in place, with only relatively minor changes, and they have formed the backdrop to widespread change in family structures and the life-course trajectories of individuals. In the immediate postwar period and up to the late 1960s most people experienced a typical life-course pattern of courtship leading to marriage, followed by the birth of children; the woman gave up paid employment during her years of childrearing, and the couple stayed together until "death do us part." But such patterns are increasingly elusive for the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. As figures from the Office of National Statistics show, there is now much more variety and change in the way people in Great Britain move into and out of families:

  • The majority of men and women still marry, but nonmarriage is on the increase. Of women born in the early 1960s, 28 percent remained unmarried at the age of thirty-two. Only 7 percent of women born in the early 1940s were still unmarried by that age. This partly reflects later age at marriage but also increased rates of nonmarriage.
  • Cohabitation has become increasingly common, usually preceding or following marriage but, for some couples, replacing marriage. The proportion of nonmarried women under sixty cohabiting almost doubled in less than fifteen years—from 13 percent in 1986 to 25 percent in 1998 and 1999. By the early 1990s as many as 70 percent of women cohabited prior to marriage, and so cohabitation seems to have replaced marriage as the first form of co-resident partnership for many couples. There are about 1.5 million cohabiting heterosexual couples in England and Wales.
  • The number of marriages has fallen, and the timing of marriage has changed. About 184,000 first marriages took place in 1999 in England and Wales, down from 343,000 in 1971, and the average age at first marriage was twenty-eight for women and thirty for men in 1999, compared with twenty-two and twenty-four, respectively, in 1971.
  • Almost one in five conceptions are terminated by legal abortion. Probably about one-fourth of women born in the mid-1970s will remain childless. Those who have children are older and less likely to be married than they used to be. The mean age of women at the time of the birth of their first child was twenty-nine in 1999 compared with twenty-four in 1971. Of all births in 1999, 39 percent were to unmarried women, with the most of these registered by both parents (80 percent, including 60 percent living at the same address).

The numbers and rate of divorce have remained fairly steady since the early 1980s, with about 145,000 divorces per year, a rate of 12.9 per thousand married people. The numbers of divorces involving children under sixteen reached a peak in of 176,000 in 1993, then fell slightly to 150,000 in 1999. One in four children whose parents divorce are under five years old.

The most visible outcome of these changing patterns of family formation and dissolution has been the growth in the number and proportion of families headed by a lone parent. Lone-parent families (i.e., families with one parent, not cohabiting, living with dependent children) now form about 23 percent of all families with children in Britain and number about 1.7 million families with about 2.8 million children. In the 1980s the main growth in lone parenthood came about because of divorce; in the 1990s unmarried motherhood has increased more rapidly. This is mainly a result of rising rates of cohabitation, with women who separate from a cohabiting partner appearing as "single, never-married" in the statistics. About half of all lone parents leave lone parenthood within six years of becoming a lone parent, and many of these go on to form new partnerships, and in some cases to have more children. Stepfamilies are therefore also becoming more common, with about 8 percent of children estimated to be living in such a family in the mid-1990s.

Great Britain has a mainly white population, with the 1991 census counting about three million people as nonwhite (self-definition), about 6 percent of the population. Patterns of family formation and dissolution differ among ethnic minority groups. For example, Caribbean men and women are less likely to be married or cohabiting than their white counterparts, while South Asians have higher rates of marriage and lower rates of cohabitation and marital breakdown.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsGreat Britain - The Nature Of Family Change In Great Britain, Family Roles: Men's Work, Women's Work