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Changing Family Structures: Is 'the Family' in Decline?

As we saw in Chap. 1, concerns are raised, from time to time, about whether or not ‘the family’ is in decline. However, the main focus of these concerns since the 1970s has actually been about the decline of one particular kind of family: the nuclear family. We will therefore use this section of the book to review some of the key demographic data of relevance to this discussion and show that, while the ‘nuclear family’ may be less common than it was in previous decades, it is still a very common family form. Having said this, even the nuclear family itself can take many different forms, and some of the concern about its decline appears to be linked to a particularly ‘traditional’ version of this family with a heterosexual married couple and their own biological children (rather than, e.g., a same-sex married/civil partnered couple or a cohabiting couple with their own biological children, or a couple with children where the children may be from previous relationships).

It is certainly the case that the ‘traditional nuclear family’ has been declining in the last few decades, and we can see this in a range of data. For example, there has been a steady fall in the percentage of births registered to married couples since the 1960s. In 1962, 93 per cent of births occurred within marriage, falling to 59 per cent in 2002 and 53 per cent in 2012 (including births within a civil partnership in 2012).1 The percentage of births occurring outside marriage or civil partnership (47 per cent in 2012) varied considerably by age. Almost all women (96 per cent) aged under 20 who gave birth in 2012 were not married or in civil partnership. In contrast, at ages 30-39, the majority of women giving birth were either married or in a civil partnership, with only 31 per cent of births outside marriage/civil partnership, the lowest percentage across all the age groups. Many of those born outside of marriage/civil partnership, however, were born to cohabiting couples and so still part of a nuclear family though not one involving a married or civil partnered couple.

Indeed, over the last 30 years, there has also been a significant increase in the proportion of births registered to cohabiting parents from 10 per cent in 1986 to 31 per cent of all births since 2010.[1] [2] This trend is consistent with increases in the number of couples cohabiting. In contrast, the percentage of births registered solely by the mother has fallen slightly over the last 10 years to 5.7 per cent in 2012 from 7.2 per cent in 2002.

Linked to these trends, there has also been an increase in lone parenthood over the past few decades. In 1971, there were 570,000 lone parents in the UK. By 1986, there were more than one million (Haskey 1998; Rowlingson and McKay 2002), and latest figures show that there are nearly 1.9 million lone parents with dependent children (Office for National Statistics 2013).[3] Nevertheless, this is still a minority family form with lone parents representing only one in four of all families with dependent children in 2013 (Office for National Statistics 2013).

Another increasing family form over the past 30 or so years has been the ‘step-family’ with over 500,000 step-families in 2011.[4] But, most recently, there has been a decline in step-families from a peak of over 600,000 in 2001. The reasons for this fall are not entirely clear. It is possible that women having children later are less likely to divorce/re?partner. It may also be the case that lone parents, now, are less likely to move in with someone than lone parents used to be.

These changes in family forms are certainly linked to a reduction in the ‘traditional nuclear family’ where the couple are married and live only with their own biological children rather than any step-children. If this is what is meant by the ‘decline of the family’, then there is certainly evidence for this. But this kind of family is very particular to the mid-twentieth century, and so its decline does not necessarily indicate a decline in ‘the family’ more generally. What we have seen, instead, is greater diversity and complexity in family structures. But is this focus on family structure enough to understand the nature of ‘the family’? What about relationships between family members?

Family structures are, of course, likely to affect relationships, and we might assume that non-resident parents and step-parents have rather different (and perhaps weaker) relationships with their (step-)children compared with ‘intact’ nuclear families. Research has suggested, however, that step-families face many similar issues to other families even if they do also confront distinct dilemmas (Allan et al. 2013). This research has also pointed to the diversity of step-families and the way that relationships change over time. Much of the research has focused on step-families with dependent children rather than step-families with adult children where parents may be making decisions about how they support biological (adult) children compared with step-children, and similarly, how step-children make decisions about supporting biological parents compared with step-parents. How families manage and negotiate such issues warrants further attention.

When discussing ‘the family’, people often have in their mind the traditional nuclear family, but the ‘extended’ family is also an important component of family life, and analysis of demographic data also shows that the structure of extended families is changing. This is partly a consequence of changing patterns of childbearing which then impact on the gap between generations and the number of children and grandchildren in families. For example, Fig. 3.1 shows the trends in relation to the age at which mothers bear children. It shows that from the 1940s to the 1970s, there was a considerable increase in the percentage of live births to mothers aged under 25 and a corresponding decline in the percentage

Percentage of live births by age group of mother, 1938-2012, ONS statistics

Fig. 3.1 Percentage of live births by age group of mother, 1938-2012, ONS statistics (sole registered births, where the father's information is not available, have been excluded pdf)

of live births to older mothers, particularly mothers aged 35 and over. In 1970 and 1971, nearly half of all live births were to mothers aged under 25. But since the mid-1970s, the picture has reversed so that in 2012, fewer than a quarter of births are to such young mothers. Since 2006, one in five live births has been to women aged 35 and over. So a ‘generation gap’ in the 1970s was about 25 years, whereas by 2011, it was closer to 30 years, on average.

This increase in the gap is likely to be due to a range of factors including increased participation in higher education; increased female participation in the labour force; the increasing importance of a career for women; the rising opportunity costs of childbearing; labour market uncertainty; housing factors; and instability of partnerships (Jefferies 2008; Ni Bhrolchain and Beaujouan 2012).

Fathers, of course, tend to be older than mothers. According to the Office of National Statistics, nearly half of all babies born in 2012 (49 per cent) had mothers aged 30 and over, but nearly two-thirds (65 per cent of babies) had fathers aged 30 and over.[2] This means, of course, that the generation gap is different for men than women.

However, one of the underlying themes in this book is socio-economic variation. We see similar variations in age of childbearing by social class with the smallest gap between generations occurring in poorer families. For example, according to National Statistics,[6] the average (mean) age of the mother for all live births was 30 years in 2013. But for women in higher managerial and professional occupations, the age was 34 years, and for women in routine occupations, it was 27.5. If we compare mothers at the time they have their first baby, the average age for this was 28 in 2013, but this, again, varied from 33 for women in higher managerial and professional occupations to 24 for those in routine occupations.

Women are clearly leaving it later to have children, and an increasing proportion are not having any children at all. About 1 in 9 women born in 1940 were childless, compared with 1 in 5 women born in 1967. And those women that are having children are having fewer of them: women born in 1940 had an average of 2.36 children compared with 1.91 for women born in 1967.

This rise in childlessness, and fall in completed family size, may be explained by a range of factors such as a decline in women getting married, greater social acceptability of a childfree lifestyle, delaying having children until it is biologically too late and/or the perceived costs and benefits of childbearing versus work and leisure activities.[7] The implications of the rise in smaller families and childlessness on inter-generational relationships are not clear. Where there are fewer children in a family, it is possible for parents and grandparents to spend more time (and money) on each child. And perhaps those who do not have children of their own invest (emotionally, practically and financially) in nephews and nieces. Furthermore, as family sizes are small, there may be relatively few nephews and nieces in the family. Given that people are having fewer children, this may also lead to closer relationships between cousins and friends, as well as changing the nature of relationships between partners.

As mentioned above in Chap. 2, increasing longevity could mean that there are likely to be more generations alive at any one time within the same family. However, the increasing age at which people have children can have a countervailing effect. Fingerman et al. (2012) quoted (Swartz 2009) who showed that more than 85 per cent of adults aged 40-50 in the USA had a living parent. Baby boomers are therefore increasingly likely to form a ‘sandwich generation’ providing care to their parents as well as to (young adult) children, and possibly even grandchildren.

Longevity does, of course, have other consequences for families, particularly where finances are concerned. First of all, it certainly means that children will be waiting longer before receiving any inheritance (though we also know that they may have fewer siblings to share it with than previous cohorts). This may encourage parents to give gifts earlier—or for grandparents to skip a generation in terms of gift-giving to ensure that young people receive support when they need it. It may also mean that the length of time caring for parents increases as not all of the increase in longevity is spent in good health. Another consequence is that it is increasingly common to have two generations in the same family both in retirement at the same time—perhaps a baby boomer who retires slightly ‘early’ in their late 50s or early 60s and their parent in their 80s or early 90s.

Alongside these changing demographic patterns, we also see changes in living arrangements which affect family structures and relationships. Taking the long view, Wall (1996) has argued that the proportion of married children living within 5 miles of their parents had not altered between the late eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. However, he also shows that a higher proportion of elderly people lived with other relatives (usually their children) in the late nineteenth century and in 1921 than in either earlier or later periods. In 1921, fewer than one in five people aged 75 or more lived alone compared with more than half in 1981. Of course, there were far fewer people of this age in 1921, and Wall (1996) argued that the trends are due to more demographic change and improvements in living standards than in ‘family values’.

Having said all this, it has become increasingly common in the last 10 years for people to live alone, particularly for men aged 45-64 and women over pension age. This is partly due to there being growing numbers of people in these ages (due to the baby boom). But there has also been a rise in the proportion of those aged 45-64 who have never married or are divorced, and there is also increased longevity (for women over pension age).

Living alone has generally increased, particularly in mid and later life, but living independently from parents has become less common for younger adults (aged 16-44) as they find it increasingly difficult to afford to leave home. Around 3.3 million 20-34 year olds lived with their parents in 2013,[8] an increase of 25 per cent since 1996, despite the number of people in the population aged 20-34 being largely the same in 1996 and 2013 (see Fig. 3.2). There is an interesting gender dimension to multi-generational living as it is much more common for adult men to live with their parents than adult women with 1 in 3 men aged 20-34 living in such households compared with 1 in 5 women. This is likely to be for a range of reasons not least women are more likely to partner with older men, live as lone parents or go away to university. Men who stay with their parents are more likely to be unemployed or economically inactive.

Multi-generational living is therefore increasing, and according to Aviva (2012), nearly three quarters (73 per cent) of UK family members have, at some time, lived with relatives in another generation of their families after that generation has turned 18 years of age. The nature of this varies from adult children (over 18) living with their parents while they look for a job (37 per cent), before they attend university (30 per cent), while studying (18 per cent) or immediately after university—the ‘baby boomerangers’ (16 per cent). Excluding time spent as a student, people spend an average of about three years in multi-generational living arrangements. However, some people spend considerably longer in such family types with 8 per cent (in August 2012) having stayed for over 10 years. As well as staying with their parents after leaving school/

Number of 20-34 year olds living with their parents from 1996-2013, millions, ONS statistics

Fig. 3.2 Number of 20-34 year olds living with their parents from 1996-2013, millions, ONS statistics ( young-adults-living-with-parents/2013/sty-young-adults.html)

university, it is also not uncommon for adults to leave the family home but then return to it later in their twenties, though usually for a shorter period. This ‘boomeranging’ back and forth can occur on three or four occasions and suggests a relatively supportive family, willing to take their ‘children’ in when needed.

Stone et al. (2014) found that young women were more likely than young men to return to the parental home after university, and that this was a more common trigger for returning home than loss of a job. But there was no difference, by gender, in rates of returning home following relationship breakdown if people had no children. When couples with children separated, the lone parent (usually the mother) was less likely to return to her parental home than the father.

One of the key reasons for multi-generational living appears to be ‘need’ rather than a more general desire to live together. More than half (57 per cent) of those in the Aviva (2012) survey said that they could not afford a home of their own, while 33 per cent said it allowed them to save for a home of their own. A further 12 per cent say it helped them deal with a difficult financial situation such as problem debts. Money was not the driving force in all cases, however. One in ten said they lived with their family in order to care for an elderly relative, and 7 per cent said they were doing this to provide companionship to an older family member. Other reasons given were convenience for travelling to work (10 per cent), and 13 per cent said that they just liked this way of living.

While much of the increase in multi-generational living is due to younger people remaining with their parents for longer (or even returning to them having initially left), almost 20 per cent of this kind of family arrangement was due, in 2012, to families living with their older relatives (Aviva 2012). Some of these families will be ones with young dependent children where the grandparents may be providing care. Some may be families with young adult children, and others may be older couples living with their much older parents. In these cases, the older generation in the family may be receiving care from the younger ones. So there is quite a diversity of type of living arrangement, and this is not always simple to see in the data, given the design of some surveys. However, ILC (2012) research found that only a small minority of older people (aged 50 plus) lived with those of a different generation. For example, data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) collected in 2008-2009 suggested that just over 2 per cent of people aged 50 and above lived with a grandchild (and, by implication, also a child). The proportion of older people in the ELSA study living with grandchildren did not vary statistically significantly by age group, so that similar proportions of those aged 50-54 years for example lived with their grandchildren as did those aged 85 years and over (around 2 per cent) in 2008-2009. However, the proportion of older people living with their own children did vary significantly by age group. Almost three-fifths of older people aged 50-54 lived with their children in 2008-2009 (59 per cent). These are likely to be dependent children (i.e. aged 18 or below), though some could be young adult children. Conversely, less than 10 per cent of older people aged 70 and above lived with their children, and this did not vary significantly by age after age 70. Presumably, where people aged 70 and above are living with children, these will be adult children rather than younger, dependent children.

The increase in the proportion of baby boomers living with their children is likely to be due to a range of reasons not least people having children later in life and also the difficulties young people have in being able to afford to leave home and live independently. There are also slightly more frequent instances of older people living with grandchildren in more recent cohorts of older people which probably reflects changes in family patterns and caring duties, but also more recent changes in housing and labour markets. Some families may, perhaps, see financial as well as practical advantages in pooling assets by living together.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the ILC (2012) research found that some of the socio-economic factors that might be expected to correlate with multi/ inter-generational living, such as housing tenure, did not appear to be relevant. Health status did, however, predict living in a multi/inter- generational household to a certain extent. Older people aged 65 and above who rated their health as poor were twice as likely to be living with grandchildren (4 per cent) as those with good health (2 per cent). Similarly, 10 per cent of those with good health lived with children compared with 13 per cent of those with poor health. But these are, perhaps, surprisingly small correlations as we might expect older people with poor health to be much more likely to live with their adult children than older people in good health.

One factor that did appear to be a strong predictor of multi/inter- generational living was ethnicity, according to the ILC (2012) report. Non-white older people aged 65 years and above were much more likely than white older people to be living with children (30 per cent versus 11 per cent) and much more likely to be living with grandchildren (11 per cent versus 2 per cent) in the ELSA study. Other data from the Understanding Society survey, representative of the UK as a whole, suggested that older people who are of Indian, Bangladeshi or Chinese ethnicity are also particularly likely to be living with children under the age of 16 years, compared to White British older people.

As well as looking at variations in multi-generational living within particular countries, there are also interesting variations across countries. For example, Dykstra and Komter (2012) have highlighted the greater prevalence of multi-generational living in former communist countries in Europe compared to many countries in Western Europe. And Jappens and Van Bavel (2012) also provide further data on cross-national comparisons in Europe—with almost half of those aged 55 or more living with adult children in Ireland, parts of Spain, Italy, Hungary and Poland but less than 15 per cent doing so in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark along with most of Germany, Belgium, France, Great Britain and the Netherlands. These differences probably reflect historical, cultural, policy, socio-economic and socio-political differences.

While the statistics clearly document the extent of multi-generational living, it is also interesting to investigate further how people feel about this way of living. The Aviva (2012) survey, carried out in August 2012, explored the pros and cons of multi-generational living, as reported by those who had experienced such arrangements. Despite the general view that such arrangements are driven by ‘need’ rather than positive preference, more people (85 per cent) in such arrangements reported positives to this form of living compared with negatives (two-thirds).

In terms of the positive aspects, about two in five (42 per cent) said that there was always someone around for company and 30 per cent felt that they were looked after. This appears to be particularly appealing to younger families. More than four in ten (41 per cent) of those couples planning to have children saw being looked after as an advantage compared to 26 per cent of those who were parents in a couple with two or more children. In addition, 27 per cent of those who had experienced multi-generational living liked the emotional support, and 24 per cent enjoyed sharing household chores.

People did, however, report various problems related to living with relatives. For example, four in ten said the arrangement made it more difficult to be as independent as they liked, while one in four (27 per cent) experienced arguments over personal space. The same proportion (27 per cent) said their home did not feel like their own. Couples who had plans to have children were most likely to experience problems living with family members (70 per cent). People who were widowed/divorced/separated were least likely to report such problems (60 per cent), potentially as they may appreciate the support of their family if they have suffered relationship problems and are now without a partner. Returning to the gender dimension of living arrangements, it is interesting to note that 24 per cent of women who had experienced multi-generational living said that it had made them feel ‘like a child’ but only 10 per cent of men found this.

While people were more likely to report advantages than disadvantages to multi-generational living, 51 per cent of UK families in the Aviva survey (2012) said that they would not consider sharing with family in the future. Independence appeared to be the key concern, with 22 per cent saying they were simply too used to their own space. A further 10 per cent felt they did not have the room. This does not mean that families are not willing to support each other, however, as 8 per cent said they would help their family in other ways and 22 per cent said they would move closer to family members if they needed them. Fewer than one in five (17 per cent) however said that they would be happy to live with their relatives for as long as might be necessary, and 16 per cent said they would only live with their family if it was on a temporary basis.

Research in Australia also found that older people generally prefer to live independently rather than with younger generations (Olsberg and Winters 2005). This desire to ‘age in place’ has implications for housing and care policies, though older Australians were prepared to move home to more suitable accommodation if they could retain their independence and remain in a similar location.

Multi-generational living may be increasing, but it is still not widespread as most adults live on their own, or with a partner and/or dependent children. When older people can no longer manage to live on their own, some may move back in with their children but others move into residential care. The ILC report (2012) found that around 3 per cent of older people aged 65 years and above lived in residential care in the UK. This form of accommodation generally precludes the need for families to provide formal or informal social care, although they may continue to do so and may be involved in funding stays in residential care. A further 9 per cent lived in specialist retirement housing, which does not generally involve living with children or grandchildren, although families may, again, help with formal or informal social care duties. Those living in general purpose and specialist retirement housing may receive domiciliary care provided by the state, which may be supplemented by help received from families or privately funded arrangements.

Further data from the ELSA study shows that among those living in non-institutional accommodation who report that they need help in carrying out the activities of daily living and who do not live with children or grandchildren, just under two-fifths reported that they receive help carrying out these tasks from non-resident children or grandchildren (ILC 2012). Older people were more likely to report receiving this assistance from daughters than from sons.

However, it may not be the economic situation of older people and cuts in services that ultimately dictate people’s living arrangements in the future, but that of younger people as well, especially in relation to housing needs. For example, some older people may be living in homes that are (too) large and may no longer meet their (mobility) needs, but there appears to be an inadequate supply of specialist retirement housing. At the same time, many younger people are finding it increasingly difficult to access appropriate housing. Inter-generational households may therefore provide one option to address the housing needs of both younger and older people. This could also extend to involve non-familial inter-generational housing arrangements, such as homeshare. However, while we have witnessed a small growth in the numbers of older people living with children and grandchildren, which is a likely reflection of both changes to family patterns and the state of the housing and labour markets, it is unclear whether such a growth will be sustained once the UK emerges out of its economic difficulties.

This section has analysed a range of data to show important changes in family structures over time in the UK. Family structures have certainly changed, but this does not necessarily mean that ‘the family’ is less important or ‘weaker’ than it was before. In the next section of this chapter, we focus more directly on relationships between family members and the role played in this by financial exchange.

  • [1]
  • [2]
  • [3] ONS refers to dependent children as those aged under 16 living with at least one parent, or aged16-18 in full-time education, excluding all children who have a spouse, partner or child living inthe household.
  • [4] ONS (2014) Stepfamilies in 2011,
  • [5]
  • [6]
  • [7]
  • [8]
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