Following Europe's lead? In Sweden, marriage slowly fades
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Such breakups, he says, constitute ``one of the most serious problems in Sweden today.'' He estimates that 45 to 50 percent of Swedish children are born to unmarried parents.Skip to next paragraph
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Cohabitation has virtually ceased to be an issue of ethical or religious concern here. ``The moral discussion happened in the '40s and '50s,'' says S"oren Kindlund of the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs. Now, he says, the issue of cohabitation has no particular ``moral dimension.''
Already, he says, cohabitants are treated like married people in the tax laws. State support for children is provided regardless of the parents' marital status. A special commission is now being formed expressly to remove all legal differences between cohabitation and marriage.
But there are indications that not all Swedes are content with this situation.
Ann-Cathrine Haglund, a member of parliament with the Moderate Party and chairwoman of her party's Women's Association, says the tide may be turning. ``I think marriage is becoming more popular.''
Her party, one of the two conservative parties that came close to ousting the Social Democrats in last September's elections, tends to frown on cohabitation. ``We think that marriage is the best system of living together,'' she says.
Birgit Skuncke agrees. Over dessert in her spacious older home in the suburb of Enebyberg, she said, ``There are many more people marrying now. Young people are engaged -- it is coming back again.''
Her architect husband, Jan, has serious concerns about the antimarriage trends in Sweden. He feels strongly that marriage, rather than cohabitation, provides the best environment for raising children.
But what effect a renewed enthusiasm for marriage would have on the number of children remains to be seen. Sweden, a nation where 78 percent of the women are in the work force, has a very low birthrate: 1.4 children per woman.
Despite immigration, the current generation of Swedes is no longer even replacing itself. This year, says Mr. Kindlund, the total population will probably decline for the first time since 1811.
Is America headed in Sweden's direction? On the surface, it might seem so: A falling US divorce rate and rising illegitimacy rate could signal that the now-stable rate of cohabitation in America (about 4 percent) is beginning to rise.
But there are several key distinctions. Sweden, unlike the US, has a long history of sexual liberality. It also has a firmly entrenched welfare-state system that tends to shift child-raising responsibilities away from the family and onto the state.
And unlike the United States, where (according to surveys by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago) more than 50 percent of the population goes to church once a month or more, only about 10 percent of the Swedes attend any kind of church service.
``Americans put an excessively high value on marriage,'' notes University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank F. Furstenberg Jr. ``It seems very unlikely that we will go the way of Sweden.''