Family Life in Flux

Reports Detail Changes in Recent Years

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, OCT. 17, 2010 ( Studies just published on family life in Canada and the United States detail how the traditional structures of family life are increasingly under pressure.

In Ottawa, Canada, the Vanier Institute of the Family released «Families Count: Profiling Canada’s Families IV» on Oct 4. It was published to mark National Family Week, celebrated Oct. 4-9 in Canada.

The changes in Canada are similar to those in other Western countries. Families today are small and adults wait longer to marry, if they do so at all. Cohabitation is not only often a preliminary stage before marriage, but for an increasing number it’s an alternative to marriage. 

Compared to their parents or grandparents, Canadians today are more likely to separate or divorce, and the dual-earner family has gone from an exception to the norm.

Census estimates from 2006 show that approximately 85% of Canadians (26.7 million people) lived in private households with someone to whom they are related. Of this group, the vast majority (87%) lived in «census families» (defined as husbands and wives or common-law partners, with or without never-married children, and lone-parent families with their never married children). The remaining 13% of those living in families lived with other relatives or in multi-family households.

In one way it is not so different from the census data in 1901, which stated that close to nine in 10 Canadians lived in families. The definition of a family used, however, has changed radically to include cohabiting and same-sex couples, along with single parents.

Thus, while in the 1981 census, 55% of all census families were married-couple families with children, this proportion slipped below the 50% mark in 1991 and dropped to 38.7% of all families in 2006. 

Another 29.9% of all families are married-couple families with no children living at home — a group that has been growing in size as the population ages.

The fastest growth in families has been among cohabiting couples, up from 5.6% of all families in 1981 to 15.5% in 2006.

The proportion of lone-parent families was also higher in 2006 than in 1981: 15.9% of all census families in 2006 compared to 11%.

Fewer babies

Another major change is in the number of babies being born. Over 360,000 babies were born in Canada in 2008. While this was the highest number in over a decade, and some 37,000 above the half-century low recorded in 2001, it was about one-quarter less than it was during the height of the baby boom in 1959 when births reached 479,000.

Not only is fertility declining, but women are having their babies at an older age. In 2007, the average age of mothers was 29.3 years, with more women postponing birth until their 30s. In fact, by 2006 the fertility rate of women aged 30 to 34 exceeded that of women aged 25 to 29. 

The report commented that if current trends continue, the fertility rate of women aged 35 to 39 could soon surpass women aged 20 to 24.

The same trend is present regarding the age at which people marry. In 2004, the typical first-time groom was 30.5 years old — an increase of over five years from 1970. Similarly, the average age of first-time brides has increased, reaching 28.5 years in 2004, up from the low of 22.6 years set in the 1960s.

As a result of lower fertility, immigration is now the main factor behind Canada’s population growth. Indeed, the study observed, if current patterns continue the number of deaths in Canada is likely to surpass the number of births around 2030. So from that point forward, immigration will be the only source of population growth.

More than 225,000 immigrants on average have been admitted to Canada each year since the early 1990s. According to the 2006 census, close to one in five (19.8%) Canadian residents were born in another country. Among the major industrial countries, only Australia (at 22%) has a larger ratio of immigrants to total population.

A further consequence of fewer babies is the aging of the population. Currently the median age is 38.8 years and it will surpass 45 years within less than three decades.

The latest estimates indicated that children under 15 are currently 17% of the total population, or about one-half of what it was at the peak of the baby boom.

By contrast, the number of elderly people is growing. During the baby boom period, those aged 65 and over made up less than 8% of the total population. This number has now risen to over 13% and will reach 20% within two decades. 

Marriage gap

Meanwhile, on Oct. 7 in the United States the Pew Research Center released a study titled: «The Reversal of the College Marriage Gap.»

The latest figures reveal that there has been a reversal of long-standing marital patterns. Now college-educated young adults are more likely than young adults lacking a bachelor’s degree to have married by the age of 30.

In 2008, 62% of college-educated 30-year-olds were married or had been married, compared with 60% of 30-year-olds who did not have a college degree.

This is in contrast to the situation during the 20th century, when college-educated adults in the United States were less likely than their less-educated counterparts to be married by age 30. 

In 1990, for example, 75% of all 30-year-olds who did not have a college degree were married or had been married, compared with just 69% of those with a college degree.

What has happened is that while marriage rates among adults in their 20s have declined sharply since 1990 for both the college-educated and those without a college degree, the decline has been much steeper for young adults without a college education.

The Pew Report commented that possible explanations for this shift could include the declining economic fortunes of young men without a college degree and their increasing tendency to cohabit with a partner rather than marry.

Regarding the economic factor, from 1990 to 2008, the inflation-adjusted median annual earnings of college-educated men ages 25 to 34 rose by 5%. Those with only a high school diploma, however, saw a decline of 12% in median annual earnings.


Census Bureau data from 2004 shows that the number of cohabiting households more than doubled. Notably, more than 80% do not have a college degree.

Interestingly, the Pew report observed that the recent reversal in the college marriage gap is mainly due to changes in the behavior of white women. The study found that there was much less change in marital patterns due to differences in education levels among men and black women.

Throughout the 20th century, college-educated white women were less likely than those lacking a college education to marry.

In 1950, only 67% of college-educated white women had married by ages 55 to 59. Among their lesser-educated peers, more than 93% had married.

Among white women under the age of 40, the marital gap has now vanished. In 2008, 84% of college-educated white 35- to 39-year-old women had married, matching the ever-married rate of white women of the same age lacking a college degree.

White women are following in the footsteps of black women, who, the report noted, had eliminated the marriage gap by 1990.

On the matter of marriage stability the Pew study reported that college-educated adults are less likely to experience divorce and multiple marriages than are less-educated adults. 

Both the Canadian and American reports show a notable decline in traditional family structures. While some may welcome this as greater freedom to form new varieties of family life, what is going on is an enormous sociological experiment whose full consequences we are still to see. 

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