Marriage is on the way to becoming a minority pursuit, according to a new report from think tank the Centre for Social Justice.
The report, called Forgotten Families, suggests that conventional marriage has become increasingly associated with affluence and the middle and upper classes: while only 50 per cent of couples on low incomes are married, 80 per cent in the £21,000 to £31,000 bracket have walked up the aisle. Rather remarkably, that figure rises to as much as 90 per cent for couples earning over £90,000.
By the middle of the century, in 28 years’ time, married couples will be in the minority, claims the paper, with poorer families bearing the brunt of social breakdown:
“Thriving families and stable childhoods should be the foundations on which we build a better Britain. Strong families are the seedbed in which other reforms can take root. Yet there has, over the last 40 years, been an escalation in family breakdown (divorce and separation, father absence and dysfunctional relationships) and our research has shown that it is our poorest communities – and children – that have been most affected.”
The term ‘seedbed’ is a telling one. For the Centre, which was established y Work and Pensions Secretary and former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, conventional marriage is the bedrock of society, something that needs to be in place in order for other social reforms to be successful. Despite its founder, the Centre’s report criticizes the coalition government and what it sees as a failure to address social stability:
“This Government’s lack of a clear and coherent strategy to strengthen UK families not only contrasts starkly with their early and sustained action to reform welfare and education but also threatens to undermine gains in these other vital policy areas…. family breakdown (and other major issues facing families) can never be adequately tackled by tagging ‘the family’ onto other agendas. In fact, opportunities to put families at the forefront are repeatedly being missed, despite this Government’s pledge to make this the most family-friendly country in the world.”
The report was launched earlier this week at the Conservative Party conference.
The vision presented in report, of a society in which divorce and failure to marry equals social breakdown, is frankly rather coloured and one I cannot accept. We now live in a pluralistic society in which people are finding new ways to create family units, such as cohabitation, and most of us welcome such tolerance. As lawyers we can advise cohabiting couples of their current lack of legal rights but ultimately we must respect their decision not to marry. We recently took a look at a study from the University of Leeds which suggests that cohabiting couples, for the first time ever, are now as likely as married ones to have children.
Is it really fair to such families to brand them, to quote the report, as “far less stable” than married ones?
Yes, divorce often causes heartache and distress but it can also be the beginning of a much happier and more fulfilling phase of life.
The fact remains too, after years of stalling or falling, divorce rates are rising again. Figures recently published by the Ministry of Justice show a two per cent increase in the number of decrees absolute issued in the second quarter of this year compared to the same period last year.
Could this indicate a slow exit from recession? There is always a noted rise in the number of divorces as economic conditions improve. It is often only when couples have access to ready cash that they can afford to go their separate ways. Divorces most recently peaked in 2003 at the height of the last boom.
In other words, divorce may not equal decline but prosperity!
Last year, I had the honour of addressing an Oxford Union debate. I was speaking in favour of the motion ‘This house believes that marriage is an outdated institution’. My argument was, essentially, that ever greater number s of people are resisting marriage because of the advent of the ‘equal sharing principle’: the view that if a marriage ends, the wealthier partner (usually but not always the man) should split their assets equally.
I also noted that cohabitation, the supposedly modern alternative, is in some ways a reversion to the older order because it comes with none of the hard-won legal rights that accompany the end of a marriage.
People voted against me, but am I actually being proved right? Marriage seems to be going firmly out of fashion and even when people do marry, they reserve the right to opt out of the commitment at any time.
This is social change, not the social decay depicted in the Centre’s report. Fewer couples feel the need to marry for all the religious, social, cultural and economic reasons that were relevant fifty years ago, and similarly they see no binding reason to stay together whether they marry or not. When they’ve reached the point at which they wish to go, they go.