Data shows continuing changes to marriage and society in the UK

By staff writers
3 Apr 2009

By 2031, three out of five adults in Britain may be unmarried, say forecasters extrapolating from data compiled by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The shift reflects significant changes in social and family structure.

Married couples could make up 41 per cent of the over-16 population in twenty years time. The figure is 49 per cent now. Single people, divorcees, lone parents and cohabiting couples will outnumber them.

But the majority of people will still be in committed relationships of one kind or another. Cohabiters are projected to rise from 4.5 million to 7.4 million.

However, it is predicted that the fastest-growing group will be those who remain single.

Some commentators are suggesting that the decline in legally sanctioned marriage that began some decades ago will reduce it to the status of “a minority lifestyle” but others say this is an alarmist and selective interpretation.

There are at present some 21.7 million married people in England and Wales, compared with 14.9 million adults who have never married. Four million people are divorcees and three million are widowed.

The ONS states: “There were 270,000 weddings in the UK in 2007, a fall of 2.7 per cent since 2006. Marriages registered in England and Wales fell by 3.3 per cent in 2007 to 231,450, which is the lowest number of marriages since 1895 (228,204). In Scotland, marriages decreased slightly from 29,898 in 2006 to 29,866 in 2007, while in Northern Ireland marriages increased 5 per cent to 8,687. The long-term picture for UK weddings is one of decline from a peak of 480,285 marriages in 1972.

“In England and Wales, the number of unmarried adults rose in 2007, but the number who chose to marry fell, producing the lowest rates since marriages were first calculated in 1862. In 2007, the marriage rate for men was 21.6 men marrying per 1,000 unmarried men aged 16 and over, down from 23.0 in 2006. The marriage rate for women in 2007 was 19.7 women marrying per 1,000 unmarried women aged 16 and over, down from 20.7 in 2006.

“The number of marriages in England and Wales that were the first for both partners peaked in 1940 at 426,100 when 91 per cent of all marriages were the first for both partners. This number has since fallen to 143,440 in 2007, accounting for 62 per cent of all marriages.

“Remarriages rose by about a third between 1971 and 1972, following the introduction of the Divorce Reform Act 1969 in England and Wales and then levelled off. In 2007, 88,010 marriages were remarriages for one or both parties, accounting for 38 per cent of all marriages.

“Since 1992 there have been more civil ceremonies in England and Wales than religious ceremonies. In 2007, civil ceremonies accounted for 67 per cent of all ceremonies which is an increase from 61 per cent in 1997.”

In a little over twenty years there could be 22.1 million people who have never married – 42 per cent of the adult population – against 21.6 million husbands and wives.

Anastasia de Waal, author of Second Thoughts on the Family, published in May 2008, commented: “Many more are living at home with their parents, which is a bit of a killer for romance. Others are living far from their work and find it difficult to meet people.”

Her book acknowledged the trends confirmed by the latest Office of National Statistics data, but she argued that marriage was “not so much out of fashion but out of reach” for those feeling the economic pinch and not in secure employment.

Researchers also point out that while people are living in a greater diversity of family, kinship and friendship-based relationships these days, the decision to commit permanently, though receding, is still the goal that a majority of people.

Lesbian and gay people are also arguing that their partnerships should be given the full status of marriage as in South Africa, some parts of the USA and six European nations, including Sweden from May 2009.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, said that it was important not to rush to “alarmist” conclusions about the latest ONS data, but rather to invest in supporting relationships, to recognise extended and informal families as well as nuclear ones and to re-visit the nature of marriage in the light of changing social and religious patterns.

“The vast majority of people – whether religious or otherwise – recognise that stable, faithful, loving, just and lasting relationships are crucial for the health of society and the nurturing of children,” he said. “We need to build on that and offer practical support and example. Official agencies, community organisations, charities, faith groups, schools and families all have a role to play.

“The key issue is to look at how people can be helped to respond to the intense pressures they are under in modern life – from economic insecurity and consumerism right through to false expectations about romance and desire disconnected from the tough work of commitment.

“It is important not to be seduced by simple headlines about marriage and family. These days, more people are committing to relationships because they want to, not because they are coerced. Equality between the sexes is rightly encouraged. Abusive relationships are being challenged. Civil partnerships are being entered into. We need to look at what is healthy as well as harmful in the changes we see taking place,” said Barrow.

Campaigners say that addressing unemployment, economic inequality, poor education, social alienation and child poverty are vital to supporting families. People who are poor and without regular income are more likely to be unmarried or separated.

In 2006, Ekklesia called for a radical reconsideration of the meaning of marriage, both on the part of the state and general society and in faith communities. It says that the ONS-reported growth of civil ceremonies and the decline in religious ones, as well as the social challenges to the inherited family structures reinforce this need.

In its ‘What Future for Marriage?’ report, the think-tank said that the legal-contractual function of the civic authorities and the spiritual role of blessing and supporting relationships in the church are too easily confused and argued that consideration should be given to a variety of recognised civil partnerships through which couples could specify the type of legal commitment they wished to make to one another – with the churches and others being free to decide how to respond to them.

This is similar to the kind of pattern adopted in other parts of Europe, including those where gay marriage has been legally recognised.

The report said: “This would allow both civic and religious authorities autonomy in decision-making, would avoid people having to make vows they do not believe in [,] and would encourage couples to think more seriously about the kind of commitment they wanted to enter into, and the consequences of this for others.”

See: Ekklesia, ‘What Future for Marriage?’ - http://tinyurl.com/dydqee

Office of National Statistics on marriage in the UK, 1951-2007 - http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=322

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