The family is the link between the individual and society. Historically, certainly in Catholic Europe, the primary purpose of founding a family was to produce a legitimate male heir. Adultery, especially on the part of the wife, was severely punished, and, although the Church did not recognize divorce, a marriage could be annulled on the grounds of impotence or infertility. In those days, marriage was, as it still is in some cultures, a social alliance, with little or none of the romance or sexual compatibility that drives modern marriages. Still today, the family enables, even invites, reproduction, while at the same time regulating sexual function, and providing a medium for the free flow of economic, human, and cultural capital. It harnesses strong human instincts to socialize and empower the young, and to meet, as best as it can, the physical and psychological needs of all its members, for shelter, for care, and for affection. In general, the family performs these tasks better than the state, and at lesser cost. It is, at its best, the ultimate safety net.
The model of the family that is most often in the media consists of a white, heterosexual couple with two healthy, happy children—most often an older boy and a younger 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’. Depending on the magazine you’re leafing through, he may well be wearing an improbably heavy watch. Meanwhile, the woman devotes herself to the home and children. If she works, of course, the man’s career takes priority. The man and the woman support and complement each other. They help each other to face up to the outside world. They invest every spare resource into their children, which attest to their high status and good character.
Extended families characterized by co-residence with or near the man’s family (‘patrilocal’ extended families) used to be much more common—although, at least in pre-industrial Britain, late marriages and low life expectancies prevented them from outnumbering nuclear families. The nuclear family, consisting of a couple and their dependent children, grew in pre-eminence after the Second World War as the workforce became more mobile and specialized agencies started taking over many of the functions of the extended family such as education, healthcare, and welfare. But in more recent decades, the nuclear family, and especially the cereal-packet family, has come under threat. Women are more empowered than ever before, and are often the main breadwinner in their family, with the male partner staying at home as a househusband or establishing a relationship on equal terms. More people are putting romance and fulfilment above compromise and stability, leading to serial monogamy, which is no longer stigmatized. Voluntary childlessness is more common, and developments in reproductive technology are creating more 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 owing to rising life expectancies and easy travel 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% had one child, 40% had two, and 15% had three or more.
In the twenty years from 1996 to 2016, the number of cohabiting couples more than doubled, and the number of lone parent families rose by some 20%. 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 job and financial security. 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 much more likely to be separated or divorced—and, owing to changing attitudes and developments in reproductive technology, more and more people are choosing 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 1% 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 past 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% of the total number of adopted children. Most researchers in the field agree that children raised by one or two homosexual parents are at no disadvantage.
Interestingly, over the decade to 2016, multi-family households grew by 66% to 323,000, or 1.2% of all households. This could owe to a combination of higher life expectancies and higher property prices pushing young adults who are partnered or lone partners to move into their parents’ home, or vice versa. Alternatively, multi-family households could consist of unrelated families sharing a household, perhaps in a more central or convenient location than they could otherwise afford. It should also be noted that patrilocal extended families are still common in some Asian communities. With a high number of dual-earner households and lone-parent families, grandparents are increasingly being drafted in to provide childcare or financial support. Many grandparents welcome this new role in life, but some do resent it, particularly if they are also caring for their very elderly parents.
Many couple families are ‘empty nest’ families, with grown-up children who have left the family home. There is however a trend for emancipated children to bounce back into the family home. In 2016, 25% of young adults aged 20 to 34 were living with their parents, up from 21% in 1996. Interestingly, a substantial majority of these boomerang children are boys—or, rather, men. While some parents are delighted by the return of a lost child, others feel imposed upon, particularly if the child is indolent, disruptive, or abusive, or a drain on the finances.
According to the ONS report, 7.7 million people were living alone. 28% of households contained just one person, up from 17% in 1971. The majority (54.2%) 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%) of people who lived alone were men. This could be because more men than women never marry; because men marry at a later age than women; and because, after a split, children are more likely to remain with their mother. Of the 1.9 million lone parent families with dependent children, 90% were headed by a woman.
The cereal packet family contained the seed of its own destruction. Today more than ever, people are chasing romance, which is creating instability. High divorce rates over the years have led to a considerable number of lone parents and reconstituted families. Younger people in particular are choosing cohabitation over marriage, and it is possible to envisage a looser form of cohabitation overtaking marriage, leading to 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 a more traditional arrangement, and both these trends are set to continue. Same-sex relationships are still in their infancy, and it may be that they become much more common as sexuality becomes more fluid and relationships less driven by a desire for procreation. Assisted by rising life expectancies, economic forces are shifting responsibility back onto the extended family, helping to ease an epidemic of loneliness among the elderly. But the more we run away from our loneliness, the more it bites us.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and others books.
Office for National Statistics: Families and households in the UK: 2016