Marriage still the best way to play happy, healthy families, by Polly Curtis, Guardian, Friday October 5, 2007 Children whose parents live together but are not married get worse results at school, leave education earlier and have a higher risk of developing a serious illness, according to an analysis of six years of government data on family life.
The figures show that a third of today’s teenagers are destined to cohabit rather than marry, compared with one in 10 of their grandparents. The number of cohabiting couples has increased by 65% in a decade, with a more gradual rise in the number of single-parent families. By 2014, married couples could account for less than half of British families.
The analysis, published yesterday by the Office for National Statistics, says marriage is associated with better health, particularly for men. Women who are or have been married and have children are the healthiest, unless they are lone parents, who are significantly more likely to suffer a long-term illness. Divorce and separation are also associated with poor health.
Mike Murphy, who collated the evidence on health in the report, said: “It could be that bad relationships rather than the divorce is what’s making people unhappy and therefore ill.”
Children are also more likely to develop long-term illnesses if they live in non-traditional family groups. Teenagers whose parents are married and those who live with just their mother are more likely to stay in education past the age of 17 than those of cohabiting parents. Of children who live with their married parents, 69% of boys and 78% of girls were still in education at the age of 17, compared with 59% of boys and 69% of girls who live with their mother – both higher than the proportion for cohabiting parents.
Kathleen Kiernan, professor of social policy and demography at York University, said that the figures could also betray the characteristics of people who are more likely to marry. “People in cohabiting relationships are more likely to be socially disadvantaged in the first place, so you might just be showing the characteristics of people who chose not to marry.” She added that it was difficult to generalise about cohabiting couples, who may include people who are about to marry, those who oppose marriage and those who are just “testing the strength of their relationship,” which has become more acceptable in the UK in the last 30 years.
In 2006, couples in nearly 70% of families were married. In the 10 years previously the number of married families had fallen by 4% to just over 12 million, while the number of lone mothers had increased by 11% to 2.3 million. By 2031 the number of people aged 45 to 64 in England and Wales who are living together but not married will increase by nearly 250% compared with 2003, the report says.
Cohabiting couples are the fastest growing family type in the UK, according to Steve Smallwood, the head of family demography at the Office for National Statistics. “The biggest growth, both proportionately and in numbers, is cohabiting couples, which have grown by around 60%,” he said. Childless couples comprise the largest group – there are 1,335,208 couples living together without children, compared with 854,596 10 years before. But there was also a 73% increase in the number of families where the parents are not married, to 909,816 last year.