6.1.3 Family life in historical context

Back to 6.1.2

Unit 6 Contents


The past half-century has seen really huge changes in family life in Britain and in many other countries.  It can be difficult to gain a sense of these changes because it is easy to assume, at least until we start learning about history, that the world has always been pretty much as we’ve known it ourselves!

We are following the pastoral spiral in this unit which points us to the importance of being aware of the historical context in which current issues arise.  This is the point of the second stage in the spiral, social analysis.  So we need to give some attention to the changes in family life that have taken place.

One way of getting a sense of such changes is simply to look at statistics that reflect them.  Partly as there isn’t space in this unit to give a proper historical account, this screen enables you to do that.

I hope that the various statistics below are presented in a straightforward and accessible way, with enough information but not too much.  I summarize the main changes they show, but I make very little comment on them.  It is never possible to present statistics in a neutral way, because any decision about what to include assumes a prior judgment about what matters.  Nevertheless I have sought not to select particular figures simply because they are dramatic.  So far as possible, what is below shows changes over periods of several decades, not just snapshots.

Most of what follows comes from the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS).  The footnotes show the specific sources.  Many of the figures are for England and Wales, partly because the ONS has data for England and Wales and partly because most students at the universities/colleges in the VPlater project are from these countries.



Note: If you set the zoom function for your screen at more or less than 100%, the tables below might appear misaligned.


Table 1

Marriages since 1950 in England and Wales1

Summary  Since the early 1970s, the number of marriages per year has fallen greatly – by nearly half per head of population, from around 8% to 4.4%.


Population    Total no.        % per head    First marriages   % per head                            of marriages*                        for both spouses*

1951   43.8m            360,600          8.2%                n/a

1961   46.2m            346,700          7.5%                n/a

1971   49.2m            404,700          8.2%                n/a

1981   49.6m            352,000          7.1%                227,700               4.6%

1991   51.1m            306,800          6.0%                192,200               3.8%

2001   52.2m            249,200          4.8%                148,600               2.8%

2011   56.2m            247,900          4.4%                164,500               2.9%

* Rounded to nearest 100.  The figures for 2011 are provisional.

Note  The provisional figure for total marriages for 2011 shows an increase of c.15,500 since 2009.  The 2009 figure was 232,400, the lowest ever per head of population, 4.2%.

Table 2

Civil divorce since 1950 in England and Wales2

Background  Before 1971, when the Divorce Reform Act of 1969 came into effect, divorce was possible only on the basis of:

  • ‘fault’ by one party, namely adultery, desertion or cruelty
  • incurable insanity.

The 1969 Act replaced ‘cruelty’ by ‘unreasonable behaviour’ and added the following two ‘non-fault’ grounds (to that of incurable insanity), which made divorce easier to obtain:

  • living apart for two years and both parties consenting to divorce
  • living apart for five years without both parties consenting to divorce.

Summary  After this change, divorce increased greatly.  Between 1980 and 2005 it was more than four times the average level in the 1960s.  Since 2005 it has fallen to about 20% below the 1980-2005 average (a change that partly reflects the lower number of married couples, following the reduction in marriages shown in Table 1).

Time period                     Average number of divorces (approx.)

1950s                                        <30,000

1960s                                           35,000

1970s                                         120,000

1980 – 2005 (25 years)            150,000


After 2005, the no. of divorces fell each year until 2009, when it was 114,000, before rising again, to 120,000 in 2010 and 118,000 in 2011 (rounded figures).


Chart summarizing the above statistics for marriage and divorce

To see a chart produced by ONS illustrating clearly the long-term changes in numbers of marriages and divorces (since 1931), go to p.3 in ONS, ‘Marriages in England and Wales (provisional), 2011’.



Table 3

Cohabitation in Great Britain since 19603

Summary   Over the past half-century the number of non-married people who cohabit, whether before marrying or without later marrying, has risen hugely.

In the first half of the 1960s, fewer than 5% of marriages of people aged up to 29 (i.e. most first marriages) were preceded by cohabitation.  By 2003-2007, this figure had risen to just above 70%.

Fully comparable figures for people of all ages are available only for the period from 1980 to 2007.  They show the following:


% of people of all ages ever            % of all marriages preceded cohabiting before first marriage      by premarital cohabitation

1980-84         31                                                        39

1990-94         63                                                        67

2000-03         74                                                        75

2004-07         79                                                        79



Table 4

Civil Partnerships 2005-2012 in the UK4

Legislation establishing a right for gay couples to form a Civil Partnership came into force in December 2005. The average number of Civil Partnerships per year up to 2012 is 8,500*.  About 54% of these are male and 46% female.

8,500 is about 3% of the number of marriages each year in the UK during the same period.  (Note that an exact comparison with figures for marriages in Table 1 is not possible as those are for England and Wales only.)


* This figure is rounded to the nearest 100.  I give a single average as the period since 2005 is too short to show long-term changes.  In the first full year after the introduction of Civil Partnerships (2006), their number was much higher than since then.  (The total fell until 2009, and then rose slightly each year to 2012.)5



Table 5

Average age of marriage since 19816

Summary  The average age at which people first marry has gone up from 24 in 1971 to 31 in 2011. Over the same period, the average age of people marrying (whether for the first time or later) has risen from 26.5 to 35.

These figures are for England and Wales.


Men                                                 Women

First marriage    All marriages     First marriage    All marriages

1971               25                        28                          23                         25

1981               25                        30                          23                         27

1991               28                        32                          26                         29

2001               31                        35                          28                         32

2011               32                        36                          30                         34

(Figs for 2011 are provisional.)

Table 6

People living alone7

The number of people living alone in the UK in the 45-64 age-group has increased greatly: by 50% between 1996 and 2011, from 1.6 million to 2.4 million.  This accounted for 80% of the total rise in people living alone.

The number of people living alone in other age-groups has changed much less if at all. For the 25-44 and 65-74 age-groups, there was almost no change. The number in the 16-24 group fell by 20% and that in the 75+ group rose by 11% (but not at all since 2001).

The large increase in the 45-64 age-group is probably because of a combination of higher divorce and people not (re-)marrying.

These figures are for the UK.

Total            Age 16-24      Age 45-64        Age 75+

1996                     6.6m                0.27m              1.6m                1.8m

2001                     7.0m                 0.2m                1.8m                 2.0m

2006                     7.3m                 0.2m                2.1m                 2.0m

2011                     7.6m                0.23m              2.4m                 2.0m

Difference:          1.0m            -0.04m            0.8m             0.2m

All figures are rounded.

Table 7

Religious/civil marriage ceremonies since 19818

Summary  Religious marriage ceremonies have fallen from half to 30% of the total.  Correspondingly, civil ceremonies have increased to 70% of the total.

These figures are for England and Wales.


Religious, %             Civil, %

1981               51                              49

1991               51                              49

2001               36                              64

2011               30                              70

(Figs for 2011 are provisional.)



Table 8

Age at which women have children9

Summary  Since 1971, the average age of women when giving birth has risen from 26 to 30.  However, before 1971 it had fallen from 28 in 1950.

These figures are for England and Wales.

Average age of mother at childbirth (live births) since 1951:

1951             28.4

1961             27.5

1971             26.2

1981             26.8

1991             27.6

2001             29.2

2011             29.7


Table 9

Births to married and non-married parents10

Summary  Since 1971 the percentage of births to non-married parents has risen more than five-fold, from less than 10% to nearly 50% of total births.

These figures are for England and Wales.

Births to                      Births to                                                 married parents         cohabiting or lone parents

1951               95%                             5%

1961               94%                             6%

1971               92%                             8%

1981               87%                             13%

1991               70%                             30%

2001               60%                             40%

2011               53%                             47%


Table 10

Completed family size (no. of children)11

Summary  Women in Britain have fewer children than a century ago.  During the twentieth century, the average number of children born to women in the UK went down from 3.5 to less than 2:


1900:  3.5               1950:  2.2               2000: 1.7


The number has risen since 2000.  For England and Wales (only) it was 1.9 for all years from 2007-2012.  These figures are for the ‘total fertility rate’, the rate of child-bearing, measured as if all women experienced it as they went through life.– 

That is the end of the statistics given here.  No doubt many more could added!  I hope those selected show at least some of the main changes in family life in Britain over the past half century.



How would you summarise the main changes those statistics show in a few sentences?


We now move to a reading in which Pope John Paul II outlined ‘Bright Spots and Shadows for the Family Today’. This is the title of Part 1 of a major statement on family life made early in his papacy, Familiaris Consortio (1981).  You will be asked to read more of this later in this unit.

Of course the ‘today’ in that title is now some decades ago.

As you’ve just been looking at statistics, note that at one point he says, “The Church values sociological and statistical research, when it proves helpful in understanding the historical context in which pastoral action has to be developed and when it leads to a better understanding of the truth” (#5).


Reading (4pp)

Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, ##4-10 (Part 1)


This and subsequent links to Familiaris Consortio are to the text at Intratext Digital Library (not at www.vatican.va).  Each section is on a different page.

Tip to ease reading: magnify the text – it will adjust to fit the screen.




‘The Situation of the Family in the World Today’ is the title of #6 in this reading.  Near the end of section, Pope John Paul sums up by saying,

The historical situation in which the family lives therefore appears as an interplay of light and darkness.

Having looked at the statistics above and read Part 1 of Familiaris Consortio, do you agree with this assessment?


Acknowledgement  I am very grateful to Mark Baillie for his time and effort in locating most of the sources used for this screen and obtaining much of the data.


End of 6.1.3



Copyright © Newman University.  If you wish to quote from this page, see Citation Information. N.B. If you are a student and make use of material on this page in an assignment, you are obliged to reference the source in line with the citation information.

  1. Source of population statistics: all are from Joe Hicks & Grahame Allen, ‘A Century of Change: Trends in UK statistics since 1900’, House of Commons Library Research Paper 99/111 (21 Dec. 1999), 6, except that for 2011 which is from ONS, ‘Annual Mid-year Population Estimates, 2011 and 2012′, released 8 Aug. 2013, accessed 17 Apr. 2014 at:http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_320900.pdf.

    Source of marriage statistics: ONS ‘Marriages in England and Wales (provisional), 2011’, released 26 Jun. 2013, accessed 17 Apr. 2014, at:  http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_315549.pdf 

  2. Source: Simon Rogers, ‘Divorce rates data, 1858 to now: why are divorces going up?’ Datablog at The Guardian website, 8 December 2011, accessed 29 Feb. 2012 at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/jan/28/divorce-rates-marriage-ons, and for the 2011 figure, ONS, ‘Marriages in England and Wales (provisional), 2011’ (cited in n. 1).  

  3. Great Britain is England, Scotland and Wales. Source: ONS, Éva Beaujouan and Máire Ní Bhrolcháin, ‘Cohabitation and marriage in Britain since the 1970s’, Population Trends 145 (Autumn 2011), accessed 3 Mar 2012 at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/population-trends-rd/population-trends/no–145–autumn-2011/ard-pt145-cohab-marriage-trends.pdf.  This article contains a wide range of statistics on cohabitation and several graphs showing changes. 

  4. Source: ONS, ‘Civil Partnerships in the UK, 2012’, released 08 October 2013, accessed 18 Apr. 2014 at http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_329457.pdf.  The average figure is calculated as follows: total Civil Partnerships to the end of 2012, 60454, divided by 7.0833 years, equals 8535. 

  5. In 2014, legislation changing marriage by establishing a legal right for same-sex couples to marry came into force.  Hence future statistics for civil partnerships will not be easily comparable with those up to 2012. 

  6. Source: ONS, ‘Marriages in England and Wales (provisional), 2011’, cited in n. 1. 

  7. Source: ONS, ‘Families and Households, 2013’, released 31 Oct. 2013, accessed 18 Apr. 2014 at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/family-demography/families-and-households/2013/index.html 

  8. Source: ONS ‘Marriages in England and Wales (provisional), 2011’, cited in n. 1. 

  9. Source: ONS, ‘Births in England and Wales, 2012’, released 10 Jul. 2013, accessed 18 Apr. 2014 at http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/vsob1/birth-summary-tables–england-and-wales/2012/stb-births-in-england-and-wales-2012.html#tab-Key-findings 

  10. Source: ONS, ‘Births in England and Wales, 2012′, cited in n.9. 

  11. Sources: Joe Hicks & Grahame Allen, ‘A Century of Change’, cited in n. 1; ONS, ‘Births in England and Wales, 2012′, cited in n. 9.