New figures from the Office for National Statistics show that more than half of all births in England & Wales are now to unmarried parents for the very first time. In 2021, 51.3% of births were to unmarried parents compared to 49.0% in 2020.
The context to this is the long term trend away from marriage. I’ve put together the simple chart on the left that shows this trend since 2000, compressing the scale so you can see the annual changes a bit more clearly. What should be obvious is that the change in 2021 is much more than we should reasonably expect. It’s more than double the change in any of the previous years.
Almost certainly what’s happened is that the draconian restrictions on marriage in 2020 meant that many couples who were planning to marry in 2020 were forced to postpone their weddings. What they didn’t postpone was their babies. So many of the births outside marriage in 2021 are likely from couples who will have gone on to have their postponed weddings later in the year or in 2022.
The likelihood is therefore that the % of births outside marriage will drop back below 50% in 2022 and 2023 before the long term trend eventually pushes it above in a few years time.
Why does this matter?
Well, the postponement of weddings probably doesn’t matter very much to their future. Sure it will have been stressful and annoying. But couples who were already engaged and had planned to marry will have gone on to do exactly that just a bit later than planned. There’s no reason to think their commitment and subsequent stability will have changed simply because the actual wedding itself was delayed.
However the longer term trend away from marriage matters a great deal, especially among those in lower income groups for whom relational stability can do a lot to offset financial instability. In our most recent research note, I showed that even the poorest married parents are slightly more likely to stay together in any given year than the richest unmarried parents.
This has huge knock on effects not just for the couples but for their children as well. Family breakdown – the absence of a father in the house – is the single biggest predictor of mental health problems in teenagers. This in no way denigrates lone parents who do a heroic job with one pair of hands. But the fact is that parental resources are seriously reduced when parents split up with financial, emotional and relational consequences for the children.
Further detail in the Office for National Statistics figures shows that around 75% of the highest earning parents are married compared to 35% of the lowest earners. Yet young lower income couples show just as much desire to marry as their better-off counterparts. The ‘marriage gap’ comes from political indifference, inflated wedding expectations, and a welfare system that penalises couples who want to marry or even live together. This ‘couple penalty’ means that if you move in with your earning partner, you stand to lose £’000s in universal credit or tax credits. That’s absurd, isn’t it.
Its been at least a decade since any cabinet minister made a speech about the merits of marriage. This is odd when 8 out of 10 of them think it’s important in their own private lives. Yet they have set us the most anti-marriage anti-family policy in Europe. It’s long overdue that government addresses this iniquity. Will an incoming government pay attention to marriage in their public policy?
PS delighted to have been quoted in the Mail’s page one story on this. The newspaper story isn’t online but this mailonline version is similar.