In Europe, unmarried parents on rise
More than 1 in 3 children on the Continent are born to unmarried couples, a sixfold increase from the 1970s.
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At the same time, suggests Dirk Konietzka, coauthor of a German study carried out in 2003 by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, "much of it has to do with the modernization of womens' role, and also that women who have children can work. There are fewer reasons to get married."Skip to next paragraph
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Changing social mores in societies where religion and churches have suffered declining influence have also had an impact. "It is clearly apparent in all the countries that those who became mothers within marriage were more religious than their counterparts who had their first child in other contexts," says the ONS report, drawing on United Nations figures.
In France, where church-going is rare, "society draws no distinction between couples that are married and those that aren't," points out France Prioux, research director at the National Institute for Demographic Studies. "There is no social disapproval."
Nor are there any legal differences in France between married and unmarried couples when it comes to matters such as inheritance or parental rights. (In Britain, however, unmarried fathers have no legal parental rights if they separate from their child's mother.)
This year's French parliamentary report expressed no concern about the surging trend toward families headed by unwed parents. It pointed out that 92 percent of children born to such couples are acknowledged by both parents by their first birthdays, which suggests that they are born into stable unions.
Evidence emerging in Britain and France, however, suggests that de facto unions are not as stable as those bound by a legal contract, and that in their wake they leave more children living with only one parent, with all the social, economic, and educational disadvantages that is widely acknowledged to bring.
Ermisch's research, for example, has found that the average duration of a cohabiting union in Britain (though growing longer year by year) is between three and four years - though this is partly explained by the fact that 40 percent of them turn into marriages.
Nonetheless, he calculates, only 35 percent of British babies born to cohabiting parents will live with both of them until their 16th birthday. Seventy percent of children born to married couples will do so, Ermisch says. Children born in cohabiting unions will spend an average of 4.7 years of their childhood with only one parent, compared with 1.6 years for those born in marriage, he says.
While the number of informal partnerships that turn into marriages varies considerably from one country to another (in Italy, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland it is around 70 percent, while in France it is only 32 percent, the ONS found), Ermisch's figures appear to find some echo in France.
There, Ms. Prioux says, only 10 percent of marriages break up within the first five years, compared with 18 percent of free unions. That explains, she adds, why in 1999, 7 percent of 5-year-olds born to married couples had seen their parents break up, compared with 15 percent of children of unmarried couples.
Interestingly, however, that ratio narrowed considerably for French children who had been born 10 years earlier: 20 percent of 15-year-olds born to married parents had seen them divorce, while 25 percent of those born to unmarried parents had experienced their break-up.
"Those informal unions that last seem to last much longer nowadays," suggests Prioux, though she says insufficient research has been done to fully explain the figures.
Whichever way the statistics break down, however, "the trend towards more children being born outside marriage ... will continue unless there is a radical change of heart in the whole of society towards the issue," says Brierley. "I don't think you are going to stop that."
• Andreas Tzortzis in Berlin contributed to this article.