National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future

Married/Cohabiting Couples with Children

Married/Cohabiting Couples with Children

Census Results 1981-2001
  • Within Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, Scotland had the largest decrease since 1981 in the proportion of all households which consisted of married/cohabiting couples with children (down from 41% of all households in 1981 to 26% in 2001).

  • Ireland has witnessed the smallest decrease in this proportion over the same period, falling from 44% to 38%.

  • At GB level, the same proportion fell by 12 percentage points, from 39% in 1981 to 27% in 2001.

One of the most marked changes in household composition in Scotland from 1981 to 2001 has been the reduction in the number of married and cohabiting couples with children (including non-dependent children), sometimes referred to as the 'traditional family’. In 1981, these households were about 41% of all households, but by 2001 only 26%. A similar picture was also found in England and Wales (Figure 7) (11 KB PDF) [footnote 1]).

All countries in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland have witnessed a fall in the prevalence of married/cohabiting couple households with children since 1981. In the ten years since 1991, Northern Ireland has seen the most change and the Republic of Ireland the least change. There are several reasons suggested for this observed change in all countries.

Suggested reasons for decline in married/cohabiting couple households with children

The first factor, highlighted by Coleman and Salt (1992), is not the decline in the numbers of married and cohabiting couples with children, but the increase in the number of single person households. They argue that, although the proportion of total households consisting of the 'traditional' family has decreased significantly, there has been little change in the proportion of the total population who live in these households. However, the Scotland Census records for the period 1981-2001 show that the estimated proportion of people living in such households fell from approximately 60% in 1981 to approximately 44% in 2001.

Coleman and Salt also highlight the increase in the age at which people get married. They suggest that an increase in the number of people living together before marriage or childbearing has resulted in an increase in the proportion of all households consisting of a married/cohabiting couple household without children at the expense of the married/cohabiting couple household with children. However, an examination of the trends in married/cohabiting couples without children shows a sharp decline in this household type over the last 20 years in Great Britain, while the proportion of such households in Ireland has actually increased over the same period. This trend is discussed in greater detail in section 3.5.

A more tenable reason for this trend is highlighted by Clarke & Henwood (1997), Coleman & Salt (1992) and Lewis (2001): that many couples, in Scotland and in the rest of the UK, are choosing to forego marriage and children altogether. Even in Ireland, where the proportion of married/cohabiting couple households with children is still relatively high, there has been a sharp decline in the last ten years in the proportion of women under 30 who have married (Kennedy & McCormack, 1997), indicating that women are postponing marriage and childbearing. It is however, too early to tell whether these women will remain unmarried and childless. A sharp decline in fertility has been observed recently (Fahey, 2001; O’Donoghue & O’Shea, 2002).

Overview of married/cohabiting couple households with children

Perhaps the most surprising inference that could be drawn is that this type of household may be only an intermediate stage in the evolution of the modern family (Clarke & Henwood 1997). It was so prevalent in the 50s that it is the base line against which many social scientists measure changes in family and household structure. It may, however, be relatively recent in its origin, having been born out of the unusual social circumstances during the two World Wars and in particular World War II (Chafetz, 1995). This, together with the fact that cohabitation and single parenthood were common in the early part of the 20th century when divorce was rare (Chafetz, 1995), throws into doubt the theory that the family, consisting of a married couple with children, is the norm in society.


1. 1981 Northen Ireland household composition data was inconsistent with the rest of the UK and Ireland and so is not included in Figure 7 (11 KB PDF).

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