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Marriage Foundation contributes to DWP ‘Family Stability Review’

Date: January 9, 2014

The Department of Work and Pensions is leading a cross government Family Stability Review which will assess evidence on measures to support family stability and make recommendations on future policy.  A copy of the Marriage Foundation’s response to Department of Work and Pensions Family Stability Review by Harry Benson, with full footnotes and references, can be downloaded here. See comment in the press here.

Among the many points that Harry Benson makes in his submission is the following response about how to understand recent trends in family stability, what families look like today and how has this changed over time.

Today, nearly half of all children are now born outside marriage (ONS birth data). The growing popularity and acceptance of cohabitation has also removed much or all of the social pressure to marry (British Social Attitudes Survey). However a consistent feature of cohabitation has been its relative instability compared to marriage. This cohabitation gap has been the subject of much debate amongst social scientists regarding selection vs relationship effect.

Looking at trends in divorce rates alone, research for the Marriage Foundation highlights the folly of trying to interpret trends based only on the year in which divorces occur. This method, most commonly reported in the media, conflates shorter and longer lasting marriages as if they were a single cohort. The more informative and accurate method of assessing divorce rates is to analyse divorces based on the year of marriage so that individual marriage cohorts can be followed over time.

Using this method, it becomes clear that virtually all of the change in divorce rates amongst couples marrying since the 1960s has taken place during the first five to ten years of marriage. After couples pass five to ten years of marriage, marriage cohorts look near enough identical in terms of divorce risk, regardless of year of marriage. The continuous decay of divorce rates along with duration of marriage also demonstrates how media hype about the rise of so-called “silver splitters” is over-stated.

The conclusion from this remarkable finding is that – despite all of the social trends and changes of the last fifty years – the stability of marriage has remained largely unchanged. The contribution of married couples to family breakdown thus relies entirely on the relative stability of couples during their early years of marriage.

The contribution of unmarried couples to family breakdown relies on the popularity of cohabitation. The result of ever more couples living as unmarried cohabitees has been the continued rise in lone parent family formation, again evidenced by a further doubling of lone parent households between 1980 and today (ONS household data).

Combining new data on family breakdown from Understanding Society with household data from ONS, further new research from Marriage Foundation shows that cohabiting parents now account for 19% of couples with dependent children yet 50% of family breakdown.

The key driver of family breakdown today is therefore not the failure of marriages but the failure of unmarried cohabitations.