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European Family Indicators

by Franz Rothenbacher

As we announced in the summer issue 1995 of the EURODATA Newsletter, we will publish a table on social indicators from a special field of social sciences in each spring edition. For this newsletter we chose the topic family and population.

The family is experiencing important changes in all European societies. In Europe, the population will decline until about 2020 in absolute terms, leaving immigration out of consideration. The age structure is changing slowly but moving unstoppably towards a higher absolute and relative share of elderly people. Due to birth rates below replacement in most European countries at present, the future active population will be smaller than today once these small birth cohorts will enter the labour force. All these demographic shifts will have direct effects as well as side-effects on the labour market and the systems of social protection, especially in the fields of old age pensions and health protection.

The family as a microcosm is also changing as a result of an increase in birth control, rising female educational participation and therefore rising female work participation. Effects of these societal developments on the family lead to a decline in family size, a rise in the share of childless couples, an older age at first marriage and subsequently an older age of the mother at first birth. The age difference between the sexes at first marriage is decreasing, as is the difference between the age of women at first marriage and the age of women at the birth of their first child. In the Nordic countries this age difference has become negative due to the new development of women giving birth to the first child before marriage. Marriage as legal institution has not been questioned in most European countries (with the exception of the Nordic countries). Remaining unmarried has some tradition in Western Europe, and only the birth cohorts of the 1920s and 1930s married nearly universally. The post-1945 birth cohorts resumed - albeit for different reasons - the older European marriage pattern: older age at marriage and high proportion of people remaining single.

The changes in family structures and the emergence of new family types are largely due to the - in historical terms - exponential rise in the number of divorces. However, there are marked differences regarding the increase in divorce rates in Europe, and there is a growing cleavage between north and south in this respect. A consequence of the rise in divorces is a rise in the number of one-parent families (but divorce is not the only - if the most important - factor). In addition, the striking differences between divorce rates in Europe lead to equally strong differences regarding the frequency of one-parent families. A new and increasing phenomenon is the fact that remarriage rates of divorced have declined in all European countries since 1945, whereas one would expect an increase in remarriages when divorces increase. Divorced men are generally more likely to remarry than divorced women. Remarriages are still frequent in some southern European countries as Italy, Portugal and Greece, where marriage is still highly institutionalized.

Another rather recent development which sometimes is said to jeopardize or substitute marriage is the cohabitation of non-married couples. A strong north-south-divide exists in this respect. Whereas in the Nordic countries cohabitation can be a substitute for marriage, cohabitation in most other European countries - if it exists at all - is rather a temporary arrangement preceding marriage. It is especially popular with young adults between about 15 to 35 years with persons and who are divorced.

Another from of living has increased tremendously in the last few decades, namely living alone (in a one-person-household). This form of living is most popular with the younger agegroups under 35 years (more with young men than with young women) and with the elderly (mainly women).

One of the most important changes affecting the family is the growing labour force participation of women, the dual career family. It is an important factor because female labour force participation has several preconditions as well as consequences. "Reconciliation of work and family life" requires child care institutions on the one hand and family-friendly work arrangements on the other hand. Thus, the higher the share of part-time work is (it must be pointed out that the overwhelming majority of part-time work is taken on by women in all European countries), the higher is the total female activity rate in the age group 15-64. The big exception with respect to this regularity are the Netherlands, where the part-time work rate is the highest in Europe (also regarding men), but the total activity rate of women is moderate. Countries with the highest shares of part-time work - mainly the Nordic countries, but also the Netherlands and the United Kingdom - have in general a very high share (over 30% of the total labour force) of public sector employment (with the exception of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands). Thus, especially in the Nordic countries, the state takes an active role in creating family-friendly work arrangements.

Table Population Movement(big!)

Franz Rothenbacher is a sociologist at the EURODATA Research Archive at the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES) and co-editor of this newsletter.

EURODATA Newsletter No. 3 Article 10