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Less Marriage, More Defacto

Families tend to blend as single-parent households now the most common

Herald Sun
6 July 2010

Families tend to blend as single-parent households now the most common
By Felicity Williams

Families may still be the fabric of society - but these days they often look very different to the traditional married couple and kids.

One in four families are now classified as "non-intact", according to a report entitled Families: Then and Now from the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

That's up from just one in 10 families in 1980.

The most common type of split family is single parent households, most often a divorced or separated mother and her offspring.

But the term also covers households where all offspring are stepchildren to one or both parents, as well as "blended" families where at least one child is the product of the current relationship and at least one child is from a previous partnership.

The number of babies born out of wedlock has also skyrocketed in recent decades.

Unmarried parents now account for one in three births, compared with about 10 per cent of births in 1980 and just 5 per cent in 1960.

Prof Alan Hayes, director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, said the make-up of a family mattered less than what went on within it.

"The form of a family has changed quite a bit, but what's more important than the form is how families function - whether they're places in which people are safe and children are protected, well-nurtured and developed well," he said.

Prof Hayes also said the rise in divorce and emergence of blended, step and lone-parent families was only to be expected as people's lifespans lengthened.

"The dynamic has changed a lot and partly that reflects the incredible increase in life expectancy," he said.

"When you go back to the 15th and 16th century 'til death do us part' wasn't such a long time, but of course these days 'til death us do part' is a very long time."

The number of couples divorcing once their children left school was a worry.

"What's already a concern is the break-up of relationships later in life and the financial impact of that, particularly on women," he said.

"These things are often linked to the age of the children. People often stay together for the sake of the children while they're still dependent.


Tie the knot? It's not a priority for modern Australian families

The Sydney Morning Herald
6 July 2010

Tie the knot? It's not a priority for modern Australian families
By Adele Horin and Erik Jensen

Nothing short of a revolution has swept through the institutions of marriage and family in the last 30 years, says the director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Alan Hayes.

The most striking change is the surge in babies born out of wedlock. More than a third of babies born in 2008 were to unmarried mothers, up from 8.3 per cent in 1970.

"For many children it has been a good revolution but it depends on the extent to which they are in safe and stable homes," Professor Hayes said.

The big rise in ex-nuptial births is to cohabiting couples, he says, with the proportion born to single women on their own having remained stable since the early 1990s.

"It's difficult to generalise about the effects on the children. It depends on whether the cohabiting relationship is long-term and stable, whether it leads to marriage, or whether it is fragile and part of a series of relationships."

Professor Hayes will report today on the modern family at the annual conference of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, which has charted the dramatic changes since it opened 30 years ago.

It was more important to focus on how a family functioned than on its form, Professor Hayes said, on whether parenting was harsh and inconsistent, and whether relationships "disappeared before children's eyes".

And it was easier for governments to support families irrespective of their form than to try to change marriage rates.

"Kids see the fundamentals," said Kate Watts, who has three daughters with her partner of 20 years, Richard. "And if the fundamentals are there, that's what they're really looking for."

The decision not to marry was a conscious one: neither believes in God and could not see what the church had to do with their relationship. Kate, a lawyer, has introduced Richard as her husband, but only because of the confusion the word ''partner'' brings in the legal world. On census forms, he calls her his lover.

''There is a wonderful moment in church weddings when they say 'I do' and look into each other's eyes and that's lovely,'' Kate said. "But there's a lot of church ritual before and after that we didn't want."

Rebecca Huntley, director of Ipsos Mackay Research, said for many members of generation Y, the sign of commitment was the decision to have children and to buy a house together. But later when they could afford it, the couple splashed out on a big, ostentatious wedding.

"They see the wedding as a party with 150 friends," she said. "For their parents' generation a wedding was the licence to buy a house and have the children."

Another sign of the revolution is the proportion of couples who have lived together before marrying each other, which reached 78 per cent in 2008 compared to 23 per cent in 1980. As well, both parents are much more likely to be in work, with 63 per cent of mothers of dependent children in jobs.

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