There are now more 3.5 million cohabiting couples across England and Wales. Twenty-six years ago, back in 1996, there were just 1.5 million: that’s an increase of 137 per cent in 26 years, making unmarried couples the fast-growing type of family. This is a symptom of enormous social change: over the last 50 plus years we have moved from a world in which romantic couples married by default before setting up home together, to one in which the majority – at least in secular, western cultures – do not.
Freedom and personal choice
Western societies now place a premium on freedom and personal choice. For many couples, marriage or a civil partnership before setting up home together just seems too formal, too rigid, altogether too much commitment for a relationship that may still be in its formative stages. Unless other pressures come into play, such as, for example, conservative religious beliefs, formalised relationships are now associated with serious long-term commitment – something best suited to buying house for example, or having children. The average age for a first marriage is now 31, almost a decade later than used to be the case.
As of this year, for the first time since records began, the majority – 51 per cent – of the births in England and Wales were to unmarried mothers. The social stigma once so forcefully attached to illegitimacy is long gone, it seems.