A busted flush ?

by Robert Whiston FRSA  21st Aug 2011

Modern statistics – and to some extent newspaper reports – give the impression that cohabitation is today’s most popular form of marital union between men and women.

The sheer inevitability of its conquest over marriage as the preference for the next generation has oozed out of every report since the early 1990s. There are a great many social moves and changes afoot but a spectacular increase in cohabitation is not one of them.

Between 1991 and 2006 the number of households in the UKgrew from 22.9 million in 1991 to 24.9 million in 2006 (http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=1866 )

Similarly, the growth in single person households seems to have abated. One person households in 2001 comprised 30% of that figure but half that number, ie 13.9%, were made up of pensioners. In fact, the rise in living alone among non-pensioners has risen only 3% between 1991 and 2006.

The following table (Table 1: Families by family type) shows cohabiting couples with ‘dependent children’ (ie under 16 yo) numbered 808,000 in 2001

compared with 1,071,000 in 2010. The number of married couples with ‘dependent children’ in both years has remained fairly consistent at four and a half million (Source: ‘Families and households in the UK, 2001 to 2010 ‘,see http://www.statistics.gov.uk/pdfdir/famhh0411.pdf ).

ONS states that: [1] :

 “In 2010 there were 17.9 million families in the UK. Of these 12.2 million consisted of a married couple with or without children”

An analysis of this is given at Fig YY (above) which depicts the number of children per household  and by household type. In the one child category, cohabiting and lone parent households nearly outnumber those of married couples. However, in the 2 and 3 or more category married couples have far more children than cohabiting and lone parent households.

 Two items stand out in the above table. Firstly, the quantity of married families at 12.1 million (2010) dwarfs those of cohabiting couples at 2.7 million (2010). The second feature is one that relates to the country’s future pensions and financial stability.

There are four times as many ‘dependent children’ living in married family environments (4,628,000 versus 1,071,000). The expectation is that they will contribute to the nation’s GDP at possibly a higher rate than dependent children’ from non-married families.

However, in addition to ‘dependent children’ there is a category for ‘non- dependent children’, ie those aged over 16 yo. The number of ‘non- dependent children’ found among married couples is an additional 1,553,000, while only 117,000 are to be found among cohabiting couples.

Of the three types of family household featured in Table 1 (above), the chart below displays them proportionally as a graph (%age). In excess of 60% of dependent children’ continue to be raised with married family backgrounds (‘Families and households in the UK, 2001 to 2010’).

It is quite normal for the term lone parent to be freely interchanged with lone mother since published data rarely shows the numbers of lone fathers. The assumption is that all lone parents whether they are never-wed or divorced are female.

Information from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) reveals that although significantly smaller in number than lone mothers, lone fathers with children accounted for 353,000 household in 2001 and 378,000 household in 2010. Of this number there were 170,000 and 186,000 dependent children, respectively.

In addition to these children there were 184,000 and 192,000 non dependent children in lone father households for 2001 and 2010. The split in ages of children looked after by lone fathers is interesting:

Fig Z shows that almost 50% of children looked after by lone fathers were 16 years old or older. Given that these are the troublesome teenage years one pauses to consider the many implications. For instance, do children “drift back” to their father’s household as they grow more mature ?  Do they respond better to the firmer boundaries which fathers tend to set as opposed to the elastic ones mothers set ? Do they feel the need to escape being over-mothered ?  Is Dad more ‘chilled out’ ?

The focus for 30 years has been on lone mothers so in a monopolistic situation there is no definitive answer to the above questions.



[1] “Families and households in theUK, 2001 to 2010” http://www.statistics.gov.uk/pdfdir/famhh0411.pdf 



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