Analysis: Stable household and family patterns

THE initial evidence from Census 2011 indicates considerable stability in trends in family and household formation patterns since 2006.

Many of the changes in the composition of families and households — as in other western societies — can be attributed to the postponement and “unbundling” of family life transitions, especially in early adulthood.

People are waiting longer to marry, set up house and have children, and the sequencing of those transitions is no longer as ordered or closely scheduled as in the past.

Cohabitation increased rapidly in Ireland from the mid 1990s, but according to the latest figures, the rate of increase slowed between 2006 and 2011. The younger average age of cohabiting couples in 2011 is consistent with earlier research showing that, for most people in Ireland, cohabitation is a precursor to marriage. However, the growth in the proportion of cohabiting couples with two or more children might indicate a small increase in the number for whom cohabitation is an alternative to marriage.

Irish family patterns are distinct from those of some other western countries in two respects: the birth rate remains relatively high, and the propensity for marriages to dissolve remains comparatively low. As the report notes, the continuing high numbers of births are largely explained by the high proportion of women in their childbearing years, rather than by a trend for women to have more children.

The number of divorced people has increased steadily since 1996, to 87,770 people in 2011. Calculating separated and divorced persons as a proportion of those who were ever married gives one way of measuring the divorce rate – which increased from 8.7% in 2006 to 9.7% in 2011.

However, this small upward trend is unlikely to change Ireland’s position as one of the low-divorce countries of Europe. While the number of families headed by lone parents increased between 2006 and 2011, amongst families where the youngest child was aged less than 15 years, the proportion of lone parent families remained about the same in 2011 compared with 2006. It’s important also to remember many lone parents are widowed, or divorced or separated.

One demographic feature that may augur change in the near future is the decline in the number of people aged 15-29 years. This has happened partly because this cohort was already comparatively small due to a decreasing number of births in the 1980s and early 1990s, and partly due to emigration in the current economic climate, and it will contribute towards the growing age dependency ratio, in the context of the high birth rate and the increased longevity of older people.

This increased age dependency ratio will create challenges for families and the state, as we struggle to provide care for young and old in the context of reduced economic prosperity.

* Dr Jane Gray is head of Department of Sociology, NUI Maynooth.


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