Most people would agree that the family is the most important and fundamental unit in society. The traditional family based on marriage is coming under severe pressure and an increasing number of alternative family models now exist.
There is considerable evidence that the traditional family offers the best environment in which to rear children, despite persistent claims that all family models are equally good in this respect. Marriage is also on the decline in the developed world and birth rates have dropped to crisis levels.
The traditional family, also called the nuclear family, is composed of father and mother, married and committed to a lifelong partnership together, and their biological children. Various other types of family are becoming increasingly common including cohabiting-couple families, single-parent (usually mothers) families, step-parent families, same-sex couple families, and more.
In 1994 sociologists Elizabeth Thomson, Thomas Hanson and Sara McLanahan published a landmark study (Social Forces) of the well-being of children in different kinds of families. Two of the authors (Thomson and McLanahan) recently published a retrospective commentary on the 1994 study.
The original study showed that children living with their married biological parents performed better academically and had better socio-emotional development than children living with cohabiting parents, with single mothers or with step-parents. A large fraction of the advantage was traced to difference in household incomes and a small fraction to different parenting practices. The main findings of the 1994 study have been confirmed since. Thomson and McLanahan point out that because of the poorer outcomes for children and parents in single -, step – and cohabiting parent families, the continuing growth of these family types has major implications both for individuals and society.
Of course none of this is to claim that children can be reared well only in the traditional family. No reasonable person would deny that children can be reared well by loving parent(s) in any of the family models. But the traditional family offers more stability and support than the other models and so, on average, is more likely to produce superior outcomes.
The research I quote does not deal with same-sex parent families. One sees conflicting results published about outcomes for children in this family type. However, same-sex families are relatively new and I believe that researchers have yet to develop robust and reliable analysis of this family type.
Since contraception made sexual intercourse independent of parenthood, marriage has lost its attraction for the young, the pleasure seeking and the ambitious. Nowadays young couples live together for an extended period and only consider marriage when middle-aged and successful, when they proceed to raise very small families. Many people, often daunted by the cost of the wedding party, do not marry at all and set up cohabiting couple families. And many women give birth to a child and raise it themselves as an unmarried mother.
Traditional marriage and family are under severe pressure in the developed world. Marriage rates are declining and divorce rates and births outside marriage rates are rising. The marriage rate in Ireland in 1970 was 7.0 per 1,000 inhabitants, falling to 4.5 in 2012. The UK divorce rate was 1.0 per 1,000 inhabitants in 1970, rising to 2.0 in 2012. In Ireland 2.7% of all live births were outside marriage in 1970, rising to 35.1% outside marriage in 2012.
Birth rates are in sharp decline in Europe. An average live birth rate of 2.1 children per woman is required in order to keep population numbers constant, but in 2013 the average rate in the 28 EU states was 1.45 births per woman, way below a replacement rate. Commenting on the birth rate of 1.3 children per woman in Italy, Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin said: “This means we are a dying country.”
Birth rates in Europe are significantly lower than in other countries across the world. Births per 1,000 population are quoted in brackets for the following regions – EU (10.4), North America (12.4), East Asia and Pacific (13.7), Oceania (15.7), Latin America and Caribbean (18), Middle East and North Africa (23.1), Sub-Saharan Africa (38.0).
Despite the low birth rates the population of the EU is actually rising very slowly at an annual rate of 0.2%, but this is due to immigration into the EU. The percentage of the population born in non-EU countries in Germany is 7.8%, UK 7.7%, Ireland 5.6% and it is 6.3% for the EU as a whole. For now, Europe’s only hope of maintaining sufficient population to maintain economic growth and to pay the taxes that sustain the welfare state, is immigration from parts of the world where birth rates are higher.