How and why has family life changed over the past century in the UK?

The nature of family and family life has changed considerably during the past century. Attitudes towards marriage, divorce, family life and homosexuality in the United Kingdom have all changed too.

  • Marriage - in 1971 around 405,000 people married. This number had dropped to 275,000 in 2011. Some of the reasons include the cost, the shift in society's attitude that people should marry, and women's financial independence from men. As society becomes more secular, the sanctity of marriage has lost its importance. In 2011 only one in three marriages involved a religious ceremony, half as many as in 1991.
  • Cohabitation - the act of living together in a sexual partnership without being married. Today, around 60 per cent of all marriages are preceded by a period of cohabitation. It is also an option for people not able to marry for financial or social factors, eg inter-religious relationships. Sex before marriage is now socially acceptable.
  • Effective contraception - many people now wait longer to become parents and instead concentrate on their profession. With the increase in effective contraception, the UK now has smaller families, a decrease in birth rate, an ageing population and some may claim an increase in promiscuity.
  • Divorce - in 1970 22 per cent of marriages ended in divorce. In 2010 this percentage had risen to 33 per cent. Some claim this is due to the fact that divorce is now a very easy process taking as little as six weeks. Other reasons include the social stigma of divorce no longer being an issue and increasing financial independence for women.
  • Role of women - the 1901 census recorded fewer than 100 registered female doctors in the UK. At this time, going to university was difficult and expensive, with many not even admitting women. The dependence on female labour in the Second World War and the suffragette movement meant that the roles of women changed significantly. The Equal Pay Act (1970) and Sex Discrimination Act (1975) gave women full rights. Women were no longer solely the home-maker.
  • Same sex marriage - granted to gay and lesbian couples under the Marriage (Same Sex) Couples Act 2014. It gives same-sex couples marriage rights, including property rights, pension benefits and inheritance. It also allows parental responsibility for a spouse's children.
  • Globalisation - has transformed virtually all aspects of modern life, including family life, with the number of international and cross-border relationships increasing. More people are travelling away from their families and countries of origin.
  • Impact of media - the media reflects and shapes our cultural expectations and standards. Traditionally the media held up family as being that of the nuclear model. Many TV shows now reflect the broader idea of family life, eg same-sex or reconstituted families, and many believe this has added to the increase in acceptance of different types of family units.
  • Adoption law - the Adoption and Children Act 2002 allows either a single person or a couple, including same-sex, to apply to adopt a child in England and Wales. Supporters stressed that adoption is about providing children with a stable family environment. Opponents raised doubts over the stability of relationships outside marriage, and the effects of having same-sex parents on the child's welfare.
  • Religious values - research suggests that church attendance has experienced a decline of approximately 60 per cent since 1985. This impacts family life, eg the increase in divorce, cohabitation, sex outside marriage, and the decrease in the number of people who see marriage as a something sacred and important in a religious sense.