A Quiet Revolution?

As divorce rates rise and fewer couples bother with marriage, we ask if the traditional nuclear family is becoming a thing of the past. The divorce rates nowadays are enormous. Just imagine, while you are reading this article, somewhere in the United States two couples will get married and another will get divorced. One in three American children now live with only one parent. The United States is not alone in this: in Canada and France the divorce rate has doubled in the last twenty-five years, and even in post-communist Hungary and Greece, with its strong family traditions, it has increased by 50 per cent. Even in Japan, where the traditional family is still very strong, divorce went up by 15 per cent between 1980 and 1995.

What is more, the nature of the family is changing. In Sweden and Denmark, around half of all babies are now born to unmarried parents, and in the United Kingdom and France more than a third. Even in Ireland, traditionally the most Catholic country in Europe, the rate of births outside marriage is 20 per cent.

Families are also getting smaller. The average Turkish family had seven members in 1970, today it has only five. And in Spain and Italy, where families were always traditionally large, the birthrate was the lowest in the developed world in 1995. This fall in the birthrate is due in part to the fact that, as more women have careers, they are waiting longer and longer to start a family. The age at which the average woman has her first baby is now 28 in Western Europe, and it is getting later.

So the nuclear family is clearly changing, but is it in danger of disappearing completely?

The truth is that it is still too early to tell. In some countries these patterns are actually reversing. In the United States, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom, the birthrate is rising once more; and in Denmark, for example, marriage is becoming more popular again. In the United States, the divorce rate in fact fell by 10 per cent between 1980 and 1990, and it is continuing to fall. Maybe nothing is lost after all, and perhaps a new revolution is beginning?