Traditional family unit proves resilient as marriages rise

Fri, Mar 30, 2012, 01:00

There has been a slowdown in the rate of increase of cohabiting couples, and Ireland still has one of the highest birth rates in Europe

THE TRADITIONAL Irish family remains remarkably stable, with the numbers getting married on the rise and a slowdown in the rate of increase of cohabiting couples.

The 2011 census results show that overall there were 1.17 million families, up 12 per cent on five years earlier.

Families are defined as couples with or without children, as well as lone parents.

The marital family still accounts for the majority – 70 per cent – of all family units, or just over 870,000 families.

Some of biggest increases in family units were among husbands and wives with children, who made up almost half of all families last year, or just under 560,000 family units.

The number of cohabiting couples has been rising rapidly in recent years. While cohabiting couples are still one of the fastest-growing family units – up 18 per cent – the pace of growth has slowed. They now account for 143,600 family units.

Most cohabitants – 58 per cent – did not have any children, but the average number of children in this family type is rising, up to 0.7 children per cohabiting couple from 0.6 in 2006,

Cohabiting couples with children tend to be younger, indicating that many go on to marry later in life.

The most dramatic increase is among same-sex couples. While the numbers are small, with just over 4,000 same-sex couples recorded as living together, it represents an increase of almost 100 per cent. Of these couples, 230 had children.

Marriage as an institution is on the rise. There were 144,000 more married couples in Ireland than there were five years ago.

The majority of this increase – 132,000 – was among those married for the first time. An additional 11,000 were remarried after the break-up of a previous marriage.

At the same time, there is a continued trend in the number of divorced or separated people.

While the number of divorced people has increased by some 150 per cent since 2002 to just under 86,000, the number of separated people has levelled off and stood at just over 116,000.

Given that divorce in Ireland generally requires a period of separation of up to five years, the numbers are likely to reflect a progression of people moving from separation to divorce.

The overall rate of marital breakdown – that is the number of separated and divorced as a proportion of those ever married – is up from 8.7 per cent to just under 10 per cent over the past five years.

However, this upward trend is unlikely to change Ireland’s position as one of the low-divorce countries of Europe, according to Dr Jane Gray, NUI Maynooth’s head of sociology.

“Irish family patterns are distinctive 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,” she said.

Census figures also indicate Ireland still has one of the highest birth rates in Europe. In total, some 365,000 children were born in the five years up to 2011, or an average of 73,000 births per year.

This high number of births is due largely to an increase in the number of women of child-bearing age, rather than an increase in the fertility rate. In fact, the fertility rate – the number of children a woman has on average in her lifetime – has been falling steadily since the 1980s and has remained static over the past five years.

Signs that increasing numbers of mothers are delaying childbirth until later in life are confirmed in the latest census figures.

The biggest increase in numbers of children were among mothers in their 30s. In 2006, for example, women in this age group had given birth to 460,000 children. By last year, this rose 11 per cent to almost 511,000.

The average age for a woman giving birth in Ireland in the three months before last year’s census was 31.8, one of the oldest maternal ages across the EU.

The long-running trend in family sizes is also continuing. The average number of children per family was 1.38, down from 1.41 in 2006. This was a less pronounced drop than observed between 1991 and 2006.

There are still some large families, though far fewer in number. Some 1,592 families contained seven or more children.

The number of lone parents, meanwhile, continues to rise. Latest figures show they increased by 14 per cent to 215,300.

However, this not necessarily a rise in the traditional stereotype of young lone parents. Significant numbers were widowed (just under 25 per cent), and separated or divorced (32 per cent). In fact, the proportion of young lone mothers or those with young children was similar to the previous census in 2006.