6.1.3 Family life in historical context
Back to 6.1.2
The past half-century has seen really huge changes in family life in Britain and in many other countries. It can be difficult to gain a sense of these changes because it is easy to assume, at least until we start learning about history, that the world has always been pretty much as we’ve known it ourselves!
We are following the pastoral spiral in this unit which points us to the importance of being aware of the historical context in which current issues arise. This is the point of the second stage in the spiral, social analysis. So we need to give some attention to the changes in family life that have taken place.
One way of getting a sense of such changes is simply to look at statistics that reflect them. Partly as there isn’t space in this unit to give a proper historical account, this screen enables you to do that.
I hope that the various statistics below are presented in a straightforward and accessible way, with enough information but not too much. I summarize the main changes they show, but I make very little comment on them. It is never possible to present statistics in a neutral way, because any decision about what to include assumes a prior judgment about what matters. Nevertheless I have sought not to select particular figures simply because they are dramatic. So far as possible, what is below shows changes over periods of several decades, not just snapshots.
Most of what follows comes from the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS). The footnotes show the specific sources. Many of the figures are for England and Wales, partly because the ONS has data for England and Wales and partly because most students at the universities/colleges in the VPlater project are from these countries.
Note: If you set the zoom function for your screen at more or less than 100%, the tables below might appear misaligned.
Marriages since 1950 in England and Wales
Summary Since the early 1970s, the number of people marrying per year has fallen greatly – by nearly half per head of population, from around 8% of the population to 4.4 %.
Population Total no. % of pop’n First marriages % of pop’n of marriages* for both spouses*
1951 43.8m 360,600 8.2% n/a
1961 46.2m 346,700 7.5% n/a
1971 49.2m 404,700 8.2% n/a
1981 49.6m 352,000 7.1% 227,700 4.6%
1991 51.1m 306,800 6.0% 192,200 3.8%
2001 52.2m 249,200 4.8% 148,600 2.8%
2010 55.2m 241,100 4.4% 159,000 2.9%
* Rounded to nearest 100. The figures for 2010 are provisional.
Note The provisional figure for 2010 shows an increase of c.9,000 since 2009. The 2009 figure was 232,400, the lowest ever as a percentage of the population, 4.2%.
Civil divorce since 1950 in England and Wales
Background Before 1971, when the Divorce Reform Act of 1969 came into effect, divorce was possible only on the basis of:
- ‘fault’ by one party, namely adultery, desertion or cruelty
- incurable insanity.
The 1969 Act replaced ‘cruelty’ by ‘unreasonable behaviour’ and added two ‘non-fault’ grounds (to that of incurable insanity), which made divorce easier to obtain:
- living apart for two years and both parties consenting to divorce
- living apart for five years without both parties consenting to divorce.
Summary After this change, divorce increased greatly. Between 1980 and 2005 it was more than four times the average level in the 1960s. Since 2005 it has fallen to about 20% below the 1980-2005 average.
Time period Average number of divorces (approx.)
1980 – 2005 (25 years) 150,000
After 2005, the no. of divorces fell each year until 2009, when it was 114,000, before rising again in 2010 to 120,000 (rounded figures).
Chart summarizing the above statistics for marriage and divorce
To see a chart produced by ONS showing changes in numbers of marriages and divorces since 1930, go to: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/vsob1/marriages-in-england-and-wales–provisional-/2010/marriages-in-england-and-wales–2010.html#tab-Number-of-marriages.
Cohabitation in Great Britain since 1960
Summary Over the past half-century the number of non-married people who cohabit, whether before marrying or without later marrying, has risen hugely.
In the first half of the 1960s, fewer than 5% of marriages of people aged up to 29 (i.e., of most first marriages) were preceded by cohabitation. By 2003-2007, this figure had risen to just above 70%.
Fully comparable figures for people of all ages are available only for the period since 1980. They show the following:
% of people of all ages ever % of all marriages preceded cohabiting before first marriage by premarital cohabitation
1980-84 31 39
1990-94 63 67
2000-03 74 75
2004-07 79 79
Civil Partnerships 2005-2010 in England and Wales
Since Civil Partnerships were introduced in 2005, the average number per year is 7,200*. About 55% of these are male and 45% female.
7,200 is about 3% of the number of marriages each year during the same period.
* This figure is rounded to the nearest 100. I give a single average as the period since 2005 is not long enough to show significant changes. In the first full year after their introduction (2006), the number of Civil Partnerships was much higher than since then.
Average age of marriage since 1981
Summary The average age at which people first marry has gone up from 24 in 1981 to 31 in 2009. (These figures are derived from those in italics below.)
First marriage All marriages First marriage All marriages
1981 25 30 23 27
1991 28 32 26 29
2001 31 35 28 32
2009 32 36 30 34
People living alone
The number of people living alone in the 45-64 age-group has increased. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of people in all other age groups living alone remained more or less the same, but the total went up largely because of the increase in those aged 45-64. This increase is probably because of a combination of higher divorce and people not (re-)marrying.
Total Age 45-64
2001 7.0m 1.8m
2010 7.5m 2.3m
Difference: 0.5m 0.5m
Religious/civil marriage ceremonies since 1981
Summary Religious marriage ceremonies have fallen from half to one third of the total. Correspondingly, civil ceremonies have increased to two thirds of the total.
Religious, % Civil, %
1981 51 49
1991 51 49
2001 36 64
2010 32 68
(Figs for 2010 are provisional.)
Age at which women have children
Summary Since 1970, the average age of women when giving birth has risen from 26 to 29. However, before 1970 it had fallen from 28 in 1950.
Average age of mother at childbirth (all births) since 1950:
Births to married and non-married parents
Summary Since 1970 the percentage of births to non-married parents has risen more than five-fold, from less than 10% to nearly 50% of total births.
Births to Births to married parents cohabiting or lone parents
1950 95% 5%
1960 95% 5%
1970 92% 8%
1980 88% 12%
1990 72% 28%
2000 60% 40%
2010 53% 47%
Completed family size (no. of children)
Summary Women in Britain have fewer children than a century ago. During the twentieth century, the average number of children born to women in the UK went down from 3.5 to less than 2:
1900: 3.5 1950: 2.2 2000: 1.7
The figure for 2010 for England and Wales (only) was 2.0. These figures are for the ‘total fertility rate’, the rate of child-bearing, measured as if all women experienced it as they went through life.
That is the end of the statistics given here. No doubt many more could added! I hope those selected show at least some of the main changes in family life in Britain over the past half century.
We now move to a reading in which Pope John Paul II outlined ‘Bright Spots and Shadows for the Family Today’. This is the title of Part 1 of a major statement on family life made early in his papacy, Familiaris Consortio (1981). You will be asked to read more of this later in this unit.
Of course the ‘today’ he refers to in that title is now more than 30 years ago, which we need to keep in mind when reading it.
As you’ve just been looking at statistics, note that at one point he says, “The Church values sociological and statistical research, when it proves helpful in understanding the historical context in which pastoral action has to be developed and when it leads to a better understanding of the truth” (#5).
Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, ##4-10 (Part 1) (the URL takes you to the start of the document, so scroll to #4):
‘The Situation of the Family in the World Today’ is the title of #6 in this reading. Near the end of section, Pope John Paul sums up by saying,
The historical situation in which the family lives therefore appears as an interplay of light and darkness.
Having looked at the statistics above and read Part 1 of Familiaris Consortio, do you agree with this assessment?
 Source of population statistics: all are from Joe Hicks & Grahame Allen, ‘A Century of Change: Trends in UK statistics since 1900’, House of Commons Library Research Paper 99/111 (21 Dec. 1999), 6, except that for 2010 which is from ONS, ‘Population Estimates for UK, England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, mid 2010’, released 30 June 2011, accessed 29 Feb. 2012 at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/pop-estimate/population-estimates-for-uk–england-and-wales–scotland-and-northern-ireland/mid-2010-population-estimates/index.html.
Source of marriage statistics: ONS ‘Marriages in England and Wales (provisional), 2010’, released 29 Feb. 2012, accessed 3 Mar. 2012, at, http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/vsob1/marriages-in-england-and-wales–provisional-/2010/index.html
 Source: Simon Rogers, ‘Divorce rates data, 1858 to now: why are divorces going up?’ Datablog at The Guardian website, 8 December 2011, accessed 29 Feb. 2012 at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/jan/28/divorce-rates-marriage-ons
 Great Britain is England, Scotland and Wales. Source: ONS, Éva Beaujouan and Máire Ní Bhrolcháin, ‘Cohabitation and marriage in Britain since the 1970s’, Population Trends 145 (Autumn 2011), accessed 3 Mar 2012 at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/population-trends-rd/population-trends/no–145–autumn-2011/ard-pt145-cohab-marriage-trends.pdf. This article contains a wide range of statistics on cohabitation and several graphs showing changes.
 Source, ONS, ‘Civil Partnership Statistics, United Kingdom, 2010’, released 7 July 2011, accessible Feb. 2012 at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/publications/re-reference-tables.html?edition=tcm%3A77-224152
 Source: ONS, ‘Marriages in England and Wales (provisional), 2009’, released 11 Mar. 2011. Accessible 29 Feb. 2012 at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/publications/re-reference-tables.html?edition=tcm%3A77-210946
 Source: ONS, ‘Families and Households, 2001 to 2010’, released 14 Apr. 2011, accessible 29 Feb. 2012 at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/publications/re-metadata.html?edition=tcm%3A77-222652&next=
 Source: ONS ‘Marriages in England and Wales (provisional), 2010’ (cited above)
 Source: ONS, ‘Birth summary tables, England and Wales, 2010’ (cited above)
 Source: ONS, ‘Birth summary tables, England and Wales, 2010’ (cited above)
 Sources: Joe Hicks & Grahame Allen, ‘A Century of Change’ (cited above), 6; ONS, ‘Birth summary tables, England and Wales, 2010’, released 13 July 2011, accessed 8 Feb 2012 at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/publications/re-reference-tables.html?edition=tcm%3A77-225702
Acknowledgement I am grateful to Mark Baillie for his time and effort in locating and obtaining the data from which most of the statistics on this screen are sourced.
End of 6.1.3
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