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What Future for the Family?

Families are becoming much more diverse.

Source: Pixabay

[Article revised on 25 April 2020.]

Family is the link between the individual and society.

Changes in family structure are driven by social change, and, at the same time, drive social change—which is why sex and marriage have been, and to some extent still are, so tightly controlled and regulated.

Historically, certainly in Christian Europe, the primary purpose of getting married and founding a family was to produce a legitimate male heir. Adultery, especially on the part of the wife, was severely sanctioned, and, although the Church did not recognize divorce, a marriage could be annulled on the grounds of impotence or infertility. Marriage also represented a means of forging strategic social and political alliances, with little or none of the romance or sexual compatibility that drives modern marriages.

Still today, the family invites reproduction—and almost makes no sense without it—while at the same time regulating sexual function and providing a structure and medium for the intergenerational flow of economic, human, and cultural capital. More than a vehicle of social order, the family seeks, as best as it can, to meet the physical and psychological needs of all its members, for nourishment, for shelter, for care, and for love. In general, the family fulfils these functions better than the state, and at lesser cost. It is, at its best, the ultimate safety net.

The model of the family usually portrayed by the media consists of a white, heterosexual couple with two healthy, happy children (a boy and a girl) living together under the same roof. The man and the woman in this cereal packet family are in a marriage built upon a still on-going romance between two stereotypes. The man is the main breadwinner, and, in extremis, the decision-maker and disciplinarian. He is the ‘head of the family’. Meanwhile, the woman devotes herself to the home and children. If she works, the man’s career takes priority. The man and the woman support and complement each other. They invest every spare resource into their children, which, in turn, attest to their social success and good character.

The cereal packet family with a couple and their dependent children is the archetype of the nuclear family. The other main type of family, at least historically, is the patrilocal extended family, characterized by co-residence with or near the husband’s family. Extended families used to be much more common in society, although, at least in Britain, low life expectancies and relatively late marriages curbed their growth and prevented them from outnumbering nuclear families. It is only after the Second World War that the nuclear family grew in prestige and pre-eminence, as the workforce became more mobile, and specialized agencies took over many of the traditional functions of the extended family, in particular, education, healthcare, and welfare.

But in more recent decades, the nuclear family, and especially the cereal-packet family, has come under increasing strain. Women are more empowered than ever, and are often the main breadwinner in the family, with the male partner staying at home as a househusband or establishing a relationship of equals. Many more people are putting passion and fulfilment above compromise and stability, leading to a pattern of serial monogamy, which is now much more socially acceptable. Voluntary childlessness is increasingly common, and developments in reproductive technology have opened options for those who want to have children outside of a more traditional arrangement.

At the same time, economic forces such as rising tuition fees and property prices, and a retreat of the welfare state, are shifting responsibility back onto the family, including the extended family, which, supported by rising life expectancies and improvements in transport and communication, is making something of a comeback.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in 2016, there were 18.9 million families in the UK. These included 12.7 million married or civil partnered couples (of which 4.8 million had dependent children), 3.3 million cohabiting couples (of which 1.3 million had dependent children), and 2.9 million lone parent families (of which 1.9 million had dependent children). Of all families with dependent children, 45 per cent had one child, 40 per cent had two, and 15 per cent had three or more.

In the twenty years from 1996 to 2016, the number of cohabiting couples more than doubled. Many cohabiting couples function like married couples in all but name. Other forms of cohabitation include the ‘trial marriage’ (which, if things work out, leads to marriage) and the short-term or uncommitted relationship. In many cases, cohabitation serves to delay marriage while the couple establishes a financial foothold.

In the same twenty-year period, the number of lone parent families rose by some 20 per cent. In the past, the parent in a lone parent family was likely to have been widowed by war, childbirth, or disease. Today, the lone parent is far more likely to be separated or divorced—and, owing to shifting social attitudes and developments in reproductive technology, more and more people are electing to bring up children on their own. A lone parent may eventually re-partner, sometimes with another lone parent, to form a reconstituted family.

Same-sex couple families accounted for one per cent of all couple families: 87,000 same-sex couple families were cohabiting, 47,000 were in a civil partnership, and 29,000 were married. 14,000 same-sex couple families had dependent children. These children may have come from a previous relationship or through other opportunities such as adoption, artificial insemination, or surrogacy. In the year to 31 March 2016, same-sex couples in the UK adopted 450 children, or 9.6 per cent of the total number of children adopted in that year. Most researchers in the field agree that children raised by one or two gay or lesbian parents suffer no particular disadvantage.

Interestingly, over the decade to 2016, multi-family households grew by 66 per cent to 323,000, or 1.2 per cent of all households. This could owe to a combination of higher life expectancies and higher property prices pushing young adults with a family to move into a parent’s home, or invite the parent to live in theirs. Alternatively, multi-family households could consist of unrelated families sharing a household, perhaps in a more central or convenient location than they could otherwise have afforded. With a rising number of dual-earner households and lone-parent families, more and more grandparents are being relied upon for childcare or financial support. Many grandparents welcome this new role in life, although some may resent it, particularly if they also have to care for their very elderly parents.

Many families are ‘empty nest’ families, with grown-up children who have left the family home. However, there is a trend for emancipated children to bounce back into their old bedroom. In 2016, 25 per cent of young adults aged 20 to 34 were living with their parents, up from 21 per cent in 1996. Of note is that a substantial majority of these ‘boomerang children’ are male. While some parents are delighted by the return of a prodigal son, others feel imposed upon, particularly if their grown-up child is indolent, disruptive, or a drain on the family finances.

According to the ONS report, as many as 7.7 million people were living alone. 28 per cent of households contained just one person, up from 17 per cent in 1971. The majority (54.2 per cent) of people who lived alone were women, partly because women have a higher life expectancy than men, and partly because they tend to have married men older than themselves. But within the age group of 16 to 64, the majority (57.7 per cent) of those living alone were men. This could be because more men than women never marry; because men marry at a later age than women; or because, after a split, children are much more likely to remain with their mother. Of the 1.9 million lone parent families with dependent children, a full 90 per cent were headed by a woman.

Not all people who live alone are single: some 10% of all adults in the UK are ‘living apart together’ (LAT), with each partner in the relationship maintaining or living in a separate household. Some people who LAT have little choice in the matter; for others, it is a first step to cohabitation or, especially for older people, a happy compromise between intimacy and independence.

In the end, the cereal packet family contained the seeds of its own destruction.

Today more than ever, people are chasing romance and, in the process, creating instability. High divorce rates over the years have led to a considerable number of lone parents and reconstituted families.

Assisted by rising life expectancies, economic and social forces are shifting responsibility back onto the extended family, and, at the same time, helping to ease an epidemic of loneliness among the elderly.

Younger people are choosing cohabitation over marriage, and it is possible to envisage a looser form of cohabitation overtaking marriage, along with a more serial or task-driven approach to partnering over the course of a lengthening lifespan.

The relation between man and woman is increasingly one of equals, although it is very apparent from lone parent families in particular that women are still doing the bulk of the childrearing.

More and more people are choosing a childfree life, or having children outside of a more traditional arrangement, and both these trends seem set to continue.

It is still early days for same-sex relationships, which may grow more common as gender and sexuality become more fluid, and relationships less beholden to old stereotypes and an imperative for procreation.

Neel Burton is author of For Better For Worse and others books.


Office for National Statistics: Families and households in the UK: 2016.

Department of Education: Children looked after in England including adoption: 2015 to 2016.