“stable families and marriage are a major part of the glue that holds our society together”
Jeremy Lefroy MP & Fiona Bruce MP, The Telegraph, 18th August 2014
Last Friday the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its latest annual statistical bulletin for Families and Households in the UK. For those who so passionately support the institution of marriage, it must make pretty grim reading. The headline statistic from the bulletin is that cohabiting couple families remain the fastest growing family type in the UK.
The ONS puts the figures for this year in context, by comparing them with the figures for 1996. During that twenty year period the number of cohabiting couples in the country has more than doubled, from 1.5 million families to 3.3 million families. That’s roughly an increase from 9 per cent of all families in 1996 to 17 per of all families in 2016 (the fact that this is not a doubling of the percentage is due to the increased number of families since 1996). To put that in context, the percentage of married couple families has decreased over the twenty years, from 77 per cent to 71 per cent (although there are also now some civil partner couple families). The percentage of lone parent families has stayed about the same, increasing from 14 per cent in 1996 to 15 per cent in 2016.
Now, it doesn’t take a genius to make some extrapolations from the figures, on the assumption that this trend is going to continue at the same rate. My rough calculation suggests that in twenty years about a third of all families will be cohabiting couples, and in forty years’ time that will be up to two thirds.
Now, I doubt that the increase in the proportion of cohabiting couples will continue at the same rate for the next forty years, but whatever happens it does seem highly likely that the increase will continue for some time to come. I think a reasonable guess is that in forty years between a third and a half of all families are likely to be cohabiting couple families. Whatever, it is clear that marriage will continue to decline, and become less important.
That that is a fact can be shown by at least two other realities for the supporters of marriage. Firstly, I think it is undeniable that, like it or not, many, if not most, people in this country no longer think of marriage as permanent. Yes, there are still a lot of people who do think that way, but you only have to look at the divorce statistics and the number of people who have multiple marriages to see that for many marriage is a disposable commodity, like so many other things these days. Even for those who don’t treat marriage that lightly, divorce is a much easier choice than it once was, and it certainly has little of the stigma it once had. It is particularly noticeable, for example, that divorce has increased amongst older couples, who no longer feel bound together for life, as was previously the case.
The other reality is that all attempts to encourage marriage have, self-evidently, failed. Take, for example, the government’s (admittedly rather feeble) attempt to promote marriage by re-introducing a tax perk for married couples last year. According to HM Revenue and Customs less than a quarter of couples eligible for it have even bothered to claim it. Other, non-government, initiatives such as the Marriage Foundation that was launched in 2012 have also obviously failed to reverse the downward marriage trend.
So, what will the implications of the end of marriage as the dominant family type be for the country? Will it bring disaster and the breakdown of society, as some predict? Or is it just part of a natural progression away from tradition and convention? Will it simply be that individuals will be less tightly tied to one another, and freer to live their lives as they wish? And will that mean that families will, on average, be less stable than they were? If so, what will the implications of that be for children and couples who separate?
These are serious questions that we are going to have to address, and sooner rather than later. We are, for example, going to have to get a move on with finally giving proper rights to cohabiting couples when they separate. As for the idea that marriage is part of the glue that holds society together I’m not entirely convinced, but if it is then we may have to find some other form of adhesive, and pretty quickly.
The ONS bulletin can be found here.