Working out relationships


Key messages

  • Significant changes have occurred in patterns of relationship formation and dissolution and childbearing over the last century and into the new millennium, with many of the changes of the most recent few decades being unprecedented.
  • Marriages have been occurring at increasingly later ages, and cohabiting relationships have become increasingly common, especially among young people.
  • Nevertheless, most adults today are married or will marry during the course of their lives.
  • The increase in the divorce rate in 1976 (when the Family Law Act 1975 came into operation) represents one of the most spectacular family-related transitions, and although the rate subsided soon after, it has remained higher since then than in earlier times.
  • However, the divorce rate is no longer an adequate indicator of the level of relationship instability due to the rise in cohabitation rates and the relative instability of these relationships compared to marriages.
  • The net effect of these various trends is that the overall partnership rates of middle-aged men and women have fallen.
  • However, partnership rates of older men and women have increased, owing at least in part to a narrowing of the gap in the life expectancies between men and women. The increase in partnership rates among older people lowers demand for residential care among those with health issues that are manageable with the care of a partner.
  • The total fertility rate fell in response to the recession of the 1930s, then reached a peak in the so-called "Golden Era" of the post—World War II period, but has mostly fallen since then, reaching its lowest level in 2001. Overall, the rate has been below the current replacement level over the last 35 years.
  • The patterns outlined in this report suggest increasing diversity in some life course transitions (e.g., age at marriage and at first birth) and increasing uniformity in at least one other (e.g., the tendency to cohabit in the early stages of a relationship).
  • If increasing proportions of young women in the future have their first child when they are in their late 20s or early 30s (the most common ages at present), such a practice would mean that the current level of diversity regarding in the timing of first birth in women's lives will diminish.
  • On the other hand, one of the key lessons of history is that family trends can change in unexpected ways. Policy decisions that are likely to have substantial long-term repercussions therefore need to take account of the fact that, while "change is a constant", the nature of future change can take us by surprise.
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