The long term effects of marriage on social mobility

British adults whose parents were married at the time of their birth were 16 per cent less likely to ever receive benefits, a new study by Marriage Foundation has found.

They were also 23 percent more likely to have been to university and 10 percent more likely to have got married themselves.

Although overall adults from a privileged background were less likely to go on benefits, the protection of social class only appears to apply if their parents were married at the time of their birth. Those whose parents were not married when they were born were as likely to need benefits as adults without their favourable start in life.

The research is based on data from 20,000 adults now aged in their late 40s or 50s who have taken part in either the National Child Development Study or the British Cohort Study.

Harry Benson, research director of Marriage Foundation, commented:

“It is already well established that being married is associated with greater stability, health, well-being and longevity for adults and their children.

“This new report goes a step further by relating the married status of parents at the time of their children’s birth to the likelihood of those children to need benefits, go to university or get married themselves.

“It is striking that even those from privileged backgrounds whose parents were not married at the time of their birth are as likely to end up needing state support as those without the same start in life.

“Social capital within the family thus has a profound effect on social mobility outside the family.

“Although we can’t be certain of the precise mechanism, the likely reason will be rooted in the higher break-up rates of unmarried versus married families. Whereas three out of four parents who are married when their child is born will still be together by the time the child takes their GCSEs, not much more than one in four parents who don’t marry will still be together.

“Family breakdown affects children through lack of parental resources, reduced social capital, father absence, and how the children themselves interpret their parents break-up.

“Parenting can also be affected by breakdown. Although lone parents do a heroic job, lack of resources tends to lead to overcompensating in their parenting style. The best outcomes for children come from a balance of love and boundaries from their parents, a style known as “authoritative” parenting. Whereas 52 per cent of two parent families use the “authoritative” style, only 32 per cent of lone parents do so. Lone parents are twice as likely to be “permissive”.

“Whatever the explanation, our findings are based on such a large pool of adults across the social spectrum over such a long period of time are robust and striking. For rich and poor alike, parents who are married before having children give those children tremendous advantages and protections that persist long into adult life.”

Sir Paul Coleridge, chairman and founder of Marriage Foundation, commented: “The natural assumption is always that the children of the better off will, by reason of their family wealth, be protected from ever needing state benefits. But this new research demonstrates that that is simply not whole story.

“As with much of our previous research, for example into the beneficial impact of marriage on children’s mental health and sense of self-esteem, there is a unique ingredient found only within marriage that makes a significant difference. Why that should be so must be speculative but it surely has to be linked to the greater stability found within the married sector and, so far as this research is concerned, the even greater stability in families where the marriage preceded the children. This greater security inevitably feeds through into a person’s ability to fend for him or herself as an adult.

“No-one wants to be financially dependent on the state and so it is important for potential parents to understand that the decisions they make as to whether or not to marry before starting a family has such a significant impact on their children’s lives. In short if your relationship is not sufficiently committed to embrace marriage it is not sufficiently strong or stable to embrace child rearing.

“To marry before starting a family is more likely to create a stable family setting, more likely to help children go through to higher education and ultimately make children more financially resilient. This is such a simple and great gift to bestow on the next generation.”

“Marriage Foundation was created to generate research to elucidate what 44 years working in the family courts has made plain to me: that family instability in childhood has a dramatically deleterious effect on the rest of a child’s life.”


Here you can download the Research Briefing Paper as a PDF and the Press Release where it is available.

Media Links

The Telegraph, January 20, 2018 

By Olivia Rudgard: Unmarried middle-class parents more likely to see their children drop in social status

Family breakdown costs £50bn a year

When couples split up, families move from one to two households. Poverty is a common outcome that affects children. Six out of ten lone parents are supported by the state compared to one out of ten couple parents. That’s where most of the £50bn is spent.

UK Among highest family breakdown in Europe

Five years ago, the UK had the highest rate of family breakdown in Europe. We’re not doing as badly today, but only because of big falls in divorce rates. Alas there’s no sign of a similar improvement among cohabitees

Lower Divorce Rates – Higher Lone Parents

Divorce rates have plummeted over the past 3 decades, but the number of lone parents has doubled in the same period. Why?… Because unmarried parents make up only one in five cohabiting parents but are responsible for one half of all family breakdown.

Stability is found in Marriage

Whereas stability is the norm if parents are married (75% stay together), it is the exception if they are not (30% stay together). As a result, among parents of teens who are still together as a couple, nine out of ten are married

Single Most Important Factor

The single most important factor in a child’s healthy development is the stable relationship of the parents. Our groundbreaking research shows that family breakdown is the #1 predictor of teenage mental health problems.

© Copyright Marriage Foundation. All rights reserved.