Cohabitees create more single-parent families

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The Independent Online
NEARLY HALF of children in Britain born to cohabiting couples will be living within a single-parent family by the time they are five years old, according to a new study.

Research by Dr Kathleen Kiernan from the London School of Economic and Political Science shows that children who are born to married parents are less likely to see their mother and father split up than those born to cohabiting couples. This remains true even if the cohabiting parents get married after the birth of the child.

The findings show that in Britain, only 57 per cent of couples who are cohabiting when their first child is born are together five years later, compared with 92 per cent of married couples and 75 per cent of those who cohabit and then marry.

In recent decades, the increasing acceptance of people living together has led to a sharp rise in the proportion of births occurring outside legal marriage. In 1975, only five of the 19 European countries analysed in the study had extra-marital births of more than 10 per cent. By 1997 this had risen to 16 countries. Over one-third of births in Britain now occur outside marriage.

Dr Kiernan's research shows that in most of Europe the increase in having children outside marriage has occurred within cohabiting unions, with the notable exception of Britain. British women are more than twice as likely as Swedish women to have a baby on their own before they establish any partnerships at all.

In Britain, 15 per cent of first births are to lone mothers who have never been part of any domestic partnership, a figure which has doubled in the past 10 years. In contrast, only 6 per cent of mothers in Sweden and 9 per cent in France have a child on their own, and this proportion has remained unchanged in the last decade. In Italy, Switzerland, West Germany and Austria, the proportion of lone mothers has fallen over the last 10 years.

The research analysed European Family and Fertility Surveys. The 19 countries involved, including, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, West Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Spain, showed a marked variation in the importance of having children within marriage.

"Marriage is still the pre-eminent setting for having a child in southern European countries, and the middle European countries of Switzerland and Germany, but this is much less the case in Nordic countries," said Dr Kiernan. "Sweden is the only country with more first births born within cohabiting unions than in marital unions. In the southern European states, family solidarity is much greater and stronger than in the Nordic countries, and having a family within marriage is very much the norm," she said.

The findings showed that in Sweden, 53 per cent of women had their first child in a cohabiting union, compared with 23 per cent who were married. In Britain, most women have their baby inside marriage - 59 per cent - compared with 17 per cent who cohabit and 15 per cent who are lone mothers. In Spain 85 per cent of mothers are married, and only 6 per cent have a child when cohabiting.

The difference in attitudes also affects the time it takes a lone mother to form her first partnership. Single mothers in Britain form their first partnership on average within 32 months of the birth of their child, compared with 74 months in Germany, 71 months in France and 61 in Italy.

"Younger mothers tend to form partnerships more quickly and in Britain solo mothers are a different group of women than the rest of Europe. In Britain they are teenagers and tend to be socially excluded, whereas in the rest of Europe they are more likely to be in their twenties," said Dr Kiernan.

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