Lone parent families now at lowest level since 1990s

New figures from the Office for National Statistics present remarkable new evidence that stronger marriages have led to a dramatic reduction in family breakdown

New figures from the Office for National Statistics present remarkable new evidence that stronger marriages have led to a dramatic reduction in family breakdown over the past decade.

As ONS point out, Britain’s households are changing and there are more people cohabiting and more people living alone.

However this bland statement of fact misses the really important trend.

  • The proportion of lone parent families – at 21.8% of all UK families with children in 2020 – is now at the lowest level since the 1990s and one sixth down on the peak rate of 26.0% seen in 2012.

Why is this happening when cohabiting is on the rise and couples who live together without getting married are so much more likely to split up than couples who do?

The simple answer is maths! There are four times as many married families as cohabiting families. So even if cohabiting is on the increase, what happens to married families is what drives the overall level of family stability or family breakdown in the UK.

A couple of years ago, Professor Steve McKay and I found that the proportion of teenage children not living with both parents had fallen from over 40% in the 2000s to 36% in 2016. We got that finding from two big family surveys. The ONS data looks at families with children of all ages. So we would expect the proportion of lone parents with children of all ages to be about half of these figures affecting teenagers. And that’s pretty much what we are seeing.

So even though cohabiting is growing in popularity, its overall rise is slowed because so many cohabiting couples split up.

And even though marriage is declining in popularity, the overall proportion of married families is actually increasing because relatively few married couples split up.

The growing success of Britain’s married families means less family breakdown. This is good news for Britain’s families.

Harry Benson, Research Director