Marriage is just a lifestyle choice for many Britons

Studies suggest couples are more relaxed about 'living in sin' - but are not so caring about the environment

Britain is moving towards a Scandinavian family model where cohabitation is considered quite normal and marriage is merely a "lifestyle choice", a major study suggests today.

Britain is moving towards a Scandinavian family model where cohabitation is considered quite normal and marriage is merely a "lifestyle choice", a major study suggests today.

Living together is now "widely accepted" in Britain and only one in four people believe married couples make better parents than unmarried couples, the annual survey of British Social Attitudes shows. The report suggests views on marriage have shifted dramatically over the past two decades as increasing numbers of couples choose to cohabit.

The report says: "Britain will probably move towards a Scandinavian pattern where long-term cohabitation is widely seen as quite normal, and where marriage is more of a lifestyle choice."

Marriage is still valued as an ideal, but is "no longer seen as having any advantage over cohabitation in everyday life", said the report, published by the National Centre for Social Research. But teenage parenthood is still frowned upon and most people believe youngsters should have easier access to contraceptives.

More than 15 per cent of couples now cohabit compared with five per cent in 1986, and by 2021, the number is expected to reach 30 per cent. The trend means that a quarter of children are born to cohabitants. Marriage is at its lowest level since 1917 and the divorce rate is the highest in the European Union.

Rather than symbolising a breakdown in family life, the report says there is a "far more complex" mix of cohabitations, separations, marriages and divorces, which many people will experience at some point in their lives. The change means that just 54 per cent of adults now think that "people who want to have children ought to get married" compared with 70 per cent in 1989. Similarly, 62 per cent of adults think there is "nothing wrong" with sex before marriage compared with 42 per cent 12 years ago. But opinion about extra-marital sex has barely changed with six out of 10 people still considering it wrong.

Pensioners have the most traditional views. More than eight out of 10 believe that marriage should precede parenthood. But just one-third of 18 to 28-year-olds think they should go hand in hand.

Views have also softened among religious groups. Just over half of Catholics and two-thirds of Church of England followers now believe people should marry before having children. Despite this, there is considerable support for marriage as an ideal. Only nine per cent dismiss marriage as "just a piece of paper" and nearly 60 per cent think it is still the best kind of relationship. But only 27 per cent of adults think married parents make better parents and barely half the respondents thought married couples had more financial security.

The report warns that government policy has not kept pace with social change and family law still concentrates on the legal rights of married people, treating cohabitants as inferior. This runs counter to the views of a "massive" majority of people who believe the law should treat long-standing cohabitants in the same way as married couples.

The authors call for a radical review of the legal treatment of families in England and Wales. A solution could be to "extend marriage laws to cohabitants of a certain long-standing, whilst enabling them to contract out if they freely wished to make their own arrangements". Such a system exists in Canada and would amount to "the reinvention of common law marriage", which was abolished in 1753.

A second report shows public support for government action to reduce teenage births in Britain, which continue to run at the highest rate in western Europe despite significant falls in other nations. Eight out of 10 people regard teenage pregnancies as a problem, the survey shows, and most think Britain is "far too tolerant."

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