Kid and kin

Children outside marriage

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Having a child outside of marriage has, over the last century, moved from being a legal, social and emotional stigma, to coming very close to being the norm.

From the 1920s onwards, around 1 in 20 births took place outside of marriage, and until 1926 these children remained legally illegitimate even if their parents subsequently married. Apart from a small spike around the end of WWII, this proportion remained the same until the start of the 1960s, when the rate started to rise slowly. As late as 1978, more than 9 out of 10 babies were born to married parents, after which the rate started to fall sharply.

Today, the latest available data show that 46.3% of children were born outside marriage, more than ten times the rate seen in the early parts of the 20th century. However, just because a birth takes place outside marriage doesn’t necessarily mean the child won’t grow up living with two parents. The increase in births outside marriage has been accompanied by a rise in cohabitation since 1976, so not all children born outside of marriage are born to single parents.

Today, the risk to children of growing up with one parent arises as much from their parents divorcing as their not being married in the first place. Since 1957, when such data began to be published, the number of children whose parents have gone through a divorce each year rose from 30,000 to a peak of almost250,000 in the mid-1990s, before declining along with the number of divorces overall. Since 1957, just over 9m children have gone through a parental divorce (although this total will include an element of double counting, as some children will have seen parents divorce more than once), while 7m have been born outside of marriage.

Going non-nuclear
The chart shows the percentage of births taking place outside marriage.
The chart shows the percentage of births taking place outside marriage

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