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The changing family in international perspective; families are becoming smaller and less traditional as fertility rates fall and more persons live alone; Scandinavian countries are the pacesetters in developing nontraditional forms of family living, but the United States has the highest incidence of divorce and of single-parent households.

The changing family in international perspective

Families are becoming smaller and less traditional as fertility rates fall and more persons live alone; Scandinavian countries are the pacesetters in developing nontraditional forms of family living, but the United States has the highest incidence of divorce and of single-parent households

Far-reaching changes are occurring in family structures and household living arrangements in the developed countries. The pace and timing of change differ from country to country, but the general direction is the same practically everywhere. Families are becoming smaller, and household composition patterns over the past several decades have been away from the traditional nuclear family--husband, wife, and children living in one household--and toward more single-parent households, more persons living alone, and more couples living together out of wedlock. Indeed, the "consensual union" has become a more visible and accepted family type in several countries. The one-person household has become the fastest growing household type.

In conjunction with the changes in living arrangements, family labor force patterns have also undergone profound changes. Most countries studied have experienced a rapid rise in participation rates of married women, particularly women who formerly would have stayed at home with their young children.

Scandinavian countries have been the pacesetters in the development of many of the non-traditional forms of family living, especially births outside of wedlock and cohabitation outside of legal marriage. Women in these societies also have the highest rates of labor force participation. However, in at least two aspects, the United States is setting the pace: Americans have, by far, the highest divorce rate of any industrial nation, as well as a higher incidence of single-parent households, one of the most economically vulnerable segments of the population. Japan is the most traditional society of those studied, with very low rates of divorce and births out of wedlock and the highest proportion of married-couple households. In fact, Japan is the only country studied in which the share of such households has increased since 1960. But even in Japan, family patterns are changing: sharp drops in fertility have led to much smaller families, and the three-generation household, once the mainstay of Japanese family life, is in decline.

As part of the Monthly Labor Review's 75th-anniversary examination of the family, this article develops an international perspective on the changes in the American family by looking at selected demographic, household, and labor force trends in the past 25 to 30 years in Canada, Japan, and the major Western European nations. The 25- to 30-year time frame was chosen as the longest span for which data were available for all the countries examined. Because definitions and concepts differ among countries, an appendix dealing with these is included at the end of the article.

Demographic background

Major demographic and sociological changes directly influencing family composition have taken place in this century, with the pace of change accelerating in the past two decades. Almost all developed countries have seen changes of four principal types: A decline in fertility rates, the aging of the population, an erosion of the institution of marriage, and a rapid increase in childbirths out of wedlock. Each of these four trends has played a part in the transformation of the modern family.

Fertility rates. Over the past century, women in industrialized countries have moved to having fewer children--that is, to lower fertility rates. The decline was, in many cases, interrupted by the post-World War II baby boom, but it resumed in the 1960's. Japan is an exception, in that fertility rates have declined sharply and almost continuously since the late 1940's, with no postwar upturn apart from a small recovery and stabilization from the mid-1960's to the early 1970's.

The change in total fertility rates in 10 countries is shown in table 1. With the exception of some baby "boomlets" in the late 1970's and 1980's, total fertility rates in most developed countries have declined to below the level needed to replace population deaths, namely, 2.1 children per woman. This means that the current population will not even replace itself if current levels of fertility continue. By 1988, fertility rates in the developed countries fell into a narrow range of from 1.3 to 1.4 children per woman in Germany and Italy to around 1.9 to 2.0 in the United States and Sweden.

Decreased fertility has important implications for the family. In particular, family size is getting smaller, with consequences for parents--especially mothers--and children. Probably the most significant effect of falling fertility is the opportunity it has afforded women for increased participation in the labor market. And the converse relation holds as well: increased participation leads to lower fertility. Smaller families also mean fewer relatives to care for young children.

Aging of the population. It is important to consider the age structure of the population because different arrays of persons by age result in different household structures across countries. Mortality, as well as fertility, has declined in the 20th century. The decline in mortality has been more or less continuous, and the average age at death has risen considerably in all developed countries. The decrease in fertility has resulted in a decline in the proportion of children in the population. However, because it affected all age groups, the drop in mortality did not have a major effect on the age structure of populations. In fact, mortality decreased more at younger than at older ages, thereby offsetting rather than exacerbating the effect of the fertility decline. Thus, the progressive aging of the population in the developed countries is attributable primarily to the declining fertility rates.(1)

Table 2 shows the distribution of the population by age in 10 countries from 1950 to 1990. The proportion of the population in the youngest age group (0-14 years) is declining everywhere, while the proportion of the elderly (age 65 and over) is increasing. Compared with most European countries and Japan, the U.S. and Canadian populations are more youthful, reflecting higher comparative fertility rates. However, in both North American countries, the declining fertility rates have produced a sharp drop since 1960 in the share of the population held by the under-age-15 group. With the exception of France, all the European countries and Japan now have less than one-fifth of their total population under 15, with Germany having the lowest proportion.

At the other end of the spectrum, European countries tend to have larger

proportions of elderly persons than do the two North American nations. Sweden, Germany, and Denmark all have about the same proportion of elderly as they have children under 15. In contrast, the proportion of children in the United States and Canada is nearly twice as great as the proportion of elderly.

Life expectancy at birth is higher for women than for men in all the countries studied. Women outlive men by 6 to 7 years, on average, and this influences household structures, as many more women than men live alone at older ages. In most developed countries, women must anticipate a period of living alone at some point during their later years.

Aging of the population is common to all the industrialized countries, although there are considerable differences in the extent and timing of the phenomenon. These differences are reflected in the comparisons presented later on household type. For example, countries with high proportions of elderly people tend to have higher proportions of single-person households, because the elderly are increasingly living alone.

Marriage and divorce. Almost everyone in the United States gets married at some time in his or her life. The United States has long had one of the highest marriage rates in the world, and even in recent years it has maintained a relatively high rate. For the cohort born in 1945, for example, 95 percent of the men have married, compared with 75 percent in Sweden.(2) The other countries studied ranked somewhere between these two extremes.

According to table 3, a trend toward fewer marriages is plain in all of the countries studied, although the timing of this decline differs from country to country. In Scandinavia and Germany, for example, the downward trend in the marriage rate was already evident in the 1960's; in the United States, Canada, Japan, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, the decline began in the 1970's.

In Europe, the average age at marriage fell until the beginning of the 1970's, when a complete reversal occurred. Postponement of marriage by the young is now common throughout the continent. The generation born in the early 1950's initiated this new behavior, characterized by both later and less frequent marriage.(3) Average age at first marriage has also been rising in the United States since the mid-1950's, but Americans still tend to marry earlier than their European counterparts. For example, the average age at first marriage for American men and women in 1988 was 25.9 and 23.6, respectively. In Denmark, it was 29.2 for men and 26.5 for women.

The high U.S. marriage rate is, in part, related to the fact that the United States has maintained a fairly low level of nonmarital cohabitation. In Europe--particularly in Scandinavia, but also in France, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands--there have been large increases in the incidence of unmarried couples living together. This situation is reflected in the lower marriage rates of these countries. Swedish data that include all cohabiting couples indicate that family formation rates have remained stable since 1960, even though marriage rates have dropped.

Divorce rates have shown a long-term increase in most industrial nations since around the turn of the century. After accelerating during the 1970's, the rates reached in the 1980's are probably the highest in the modern history of these nations. While a very large proportion of Americans marry, their marital breakup rate is by far the highest among the developed countries. (See table 3.) Based on recent divorce rates, the chances of a first American marriage ending in divorce are today about one in two; the corresponding ratio in Europe is about one in three to one in four.

Liberalization of divorce laws came to the United States well before it occurred in Europe, but such laws were loosened in most European countries beginning in the 1970's, with further liberalization taking place in the 1980's. Consequently, divorce rates are rising rapidly in many European countries. By 1986, the rate had quadrupled in the Netherlands and almost tripled in France over the levels recorded in 1960. The sharpest increase occurred in the United Kingdom, where the marital breakup rate increased sixfold. Although divorce rates continued to rise in Europe in the 1980's, the increase in the United States abated, and the rate in 1986 was slightly below that recorded in 1980. In Canada, although divorce rates remain considerably lower than in the United States, the magnitude of the increase since 1960 has been greater than that in the United Kingdom.

Italy is the only European country studied in which the divorce rate remains low, and divorce laws have not been liberalized there. Japan's divorce rates are lower than in all other countries except Italy, but, unlike Italy, there has been an upward trend in Japan since 1960.

Divorce rates understate the extent of family breakup in all countries: marital separations are not covered by the divorce statistics, and these statistics also do not capture the breakup of families in which the couple is not legally married. Studies show that in Sweden, the breakup rate of couples in consensual unions is three times the dissolution rate of married couples.(4) Statistics Sweden tabulates data on family dissolution from population registers that show when couples previously living together have moved to separate addresses. The data indicate that the family dissolution rate rose more than fourfold between 1960 and 1980, while the divorce rate merely doubled.

Births out of wedlock. Rates of births to unmarried women have increased in all developed countries except Japan. (See table 4.) The phenomenon arises from the decline of marriage, the increase in divorce, and the rising rates of cohabitations. Close to half of all live births in Sweden are now outside of wedlock, up from only 1 in 10 in 1960. Denmark is not far behind. In the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, unmarried women account for more than 1 out of 5 births, while the rates are far lower in the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany.

Although relatively high proportions of Swedish and Danish children are born out of wedlock, it should be noted that nearly all of them are born to parents who live together in a consensual union. These cohabiting parents are typically in a relationship that has many of the legal rights and obligations of a marriage. Statistics Sweden estimates that only 0.5 percent of all live births in the early 1980's involved a situation in which no father was identified and required to pay child support.

A relatively high proportion of births out of wedlock in the United States and the United Kingdom are to teenagers--more than 33 and 29 percent, respectively. In Sweden, teenagers account for only 6 percent, and in France and Japan about 10 percent. More than half of the births out of wedlock in Sweden are to women between the ages of 25 and 34, while only one-quarter are to women in that age group in the United States and the United Kingdom.(5)

All of the foregoing demographic trends have had an impact on household size and composition in the developed nations. This impact can be seen clearly in developments since 1960.

Household size declines

One of the major ramifications of the demographic trends, especially the declining fertility rates and the aging of the population, is that households have diminished in size throughout this century. All of the countries studied have seen declines from an average of four or five members per household in the 1920's to an average of only two or three persons living together in the mid- to late 1980's. (See table 5.) Denmark, Germany, and Sweden currently have average household sizes in the range of 2.2 to 2.3 persons. The United States, Canada, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom have households in the 2.6- to 2.8-person range. Japan maintains the highest average, at about three persons per household. This is explained, in part, by the prevalence of three-generation households there.

Married couples living with both their children and parents made up 12 percent of all households in Japan in 1985. However, such households have lost considerable ground since 1960, when they represented one-quarter of all households in Japan. Meanwhile, three-generation households have virtually disappeared in Europe and North America. For example, the traditional German "stem" family comprising more than two generations represented 6 percent of all households in 1961, but only 2 percent by 1981. The share of the population residing in such households fell from 11 percent to less than 4 percent.(6)

Household composition

Households come in many sizes and types. Table 6 sets forth a proportional distribution by major household type for the period 1960 to 1988. Despite definitional differences that do not allow for full comparability across countries, broad distinctions and trends are reliable. Deviations that should be kept in mind involve the concepts of a married couple and a child. The classification "married couple" increasingly includes couples living together who are not legally married. The definition of the age limit for a child varies considerably from country to country, ranging from under the age of 16 in Sweden and under 18 in the United States and several other countries to any age in Germany and the Netherlands. Finally, the data for Denmark are derived differently than those for the other countries. For further information on all of these points, see the appendix.

Table 6 indicates that all countries shown, except Japan, are moving in the same direction in terms of household composition, although some are moving much faster than others. Married-couple households are declining in share in all but Japan; however, this category disguises the different changes occurring in the households with children, as opposed to those without children. Married-couple households without children are holding steady or increasing, while households comprising married couples with children are declining everywhere. Single-parent and one-person households are both on the rise.

All of the trends shown are partly reflections of the demographic patterns previously discussed. The erosion of marriage and the increase in divorce rates have brought about the decrease in the proportion of married-couple households. The decline would have been even greater in some countries if cohabiting couples had been excluded from the more recent statistics. Diminishing fertility rates and aging of the population, as well as postponement of parenthood among those who intend to have children, are behind the decline in the percentage of married couples with children. Divorce rates combine with the sharp rise in births out of wedlock to propel the increase in single-parent households. Postponement of marriage, increases in the incidence of divorce, and the aging of the population all have played a part in the increase in the proportion of one-person households. The next sections examine these trends in further detail.

Married couples decline

Reflecting a significant change in family patterns, the term "married couple" now encompasses an increasing number of unmarried cohabiting couples, particularly in Europe, but also in Canada. Although "married-couple" households remain the predominant household type in all countries, the term has a different meaning today than it did in 1960, when it was more likely to refer only to legally married persons. Nowadays, even though cohabitants are increasingly included as married couples, this type of household has lost considerable ground since 1960 in all countries except Japan. The decline is entirely in households with children.

Couples with children, the traditional nuclear family, accounted for half or more of all households in Canada and the Netherlands at the beginning of the 1960's. In Japan, too, such households were virtually half of all households, while their share was somewhat lower in the United States (44 percent), Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and probably France.

By the mid- to late 1980's, households comprising couples with children had fallen to under 30 percent of all households in the United States, Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Canada's and Germany's proportions were slightly more than 30 percent, while France's was 36 percent. Couples with children were most prevalent in Japan and the Netherlands, where they constituted almost 4 out of every 10 households. However, it should be noted that the data for Germany and the Netherlands are overstated in relation to the other countries because such data encompass children of all ages. Furthermore, the data for Japan and the Netherlands are for 1985, lagging 2 or 3 years behind the figures for several of the other countries. Because the trend is downward, 1988 data could show Japan and the Netherlands at around the level for France.

The share of married-couple households without children held fairly steady in all countries except Japan, where such families rose from 16 percent to 28 percent of all households, and Canada, which recorded an increase from 27 percent to 32 percent. These households are actually a diverse group, comprising young couples who have not yet started their families, childless couples, and older couples whose children have left home. Thus, some of the couples who appeared as those with children in earlier years have now moved into the category of those without children.

Overall, married-couple households accounted for about 3 out of every 4 households in the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom at the beginning of the 1960's. They represented 6 or 7 of every 10 households in Japan, Germany, and Sweden at that time, and probably slightly more than 7 of every 10 in France. By the mid- to late 1980's, such households represented fewer than 2 out of every 3 households in all countries except Japan. The United States, Germany, and Sweden (and probably also Denmark) had the lowest proportion of married-couple households, about 55 percent. Excluding unmarried cohabiting couples, Sweden had well below half (44 percent) of all households in this category in 1985. If cohabitants classified elsewhere had been included in the U.S. figures for married couples, the late 1980's proportion would have been slightly over 60 percent of all households.

Rise of the consensual union

As noted previously, there has been a rapid increase in the incidence of cohabitation outside of marriage in a number of countries. Such arrangements became much more widespread in the 1970's and, by the 1980's, received more general acceptance in public opinion. For some couples, particularly younger ones, consensual unions may be a temporary arrangement that eventually leads to marriage. For others, it is an alternative to the institution of marriage.

A recent public opinion survey in Germany revealed increasing acceptance of marriages without licenses. The percentage of respondents who disapproved of couples living together without being legally married dropped from 36 percent in 1982 to 27 percent in 1989, and correspondingly, the notion that unmarried couples should enjoy the same legal recognition and advantages as married couples received more support.(7) Germany is a country where the number of consensual unions has remained low, compared with the rest of Europe.

The high marriage rate in the United States means that, so far at least, the country has maintained a fairly low level of nonmarital cohabitation, a rate lower than in most European countries and in a different league entirely from Scandinavia. The Census Bureau reports the number of households comprising two unrelated adults of the opposite sex, with or without children. Although some may be roommate or landlord-tenant arrangements, most of these households can be viewed as consensual unions.(8) None are included in the married-couple data in table 6; rather, they are classified in the "other households" group. According to the Census Bureau data, the incidence of such arrangements has risen from 1.2 percent of all couples living together in 1970 to 3.1 percent in 1980 and 4.7 percent in 1988. Moreover, these percentages are understated to the extent that people in common-law marriages report themselves as married couples and are, therefore, not included in these statistics. By definition, no more than two unrelated adults are present in an unmarried-couple household, but the household also may contain one or more children. About 3 out of every 10 unmarried-couple households included a child under 15 (not age 18, as in other U.S. statistics on children) in 1988, slightly higher than the proportion for 1980. Thus, a minority of consensual unions in the United States involve a parent-child family group.

The U.S. figures on consensual unions are low in comparison with those of Europe and Canada. In Canada, 8 percent of all couples lived in common-law marriages in 1986, and all are included among the married couples in table 6.

Sweden and the Netherlands have recorded rapid increases in consensual unions. In Sweden, the proportion of such unions rose from only 1 percent of all couples in 1960 to 11 percent in 1975 and 19 percent in 1985. In the Netherlands, the ratio rose from 11 percent in 1982 to 19 percent in 1988. Thus, about 1 in every 5 couples in these two countries is living together out of wedlock.

Denmark reports that the number of couples in consensual unions with joint children rose from 4 percent of all families with children in 1982 to 8 percent in 1988. The proportion of all consensual unions among couples living together is undoubtedly far higher.

In France, nonmarital cohabitation increased from 3 percent of all couples in 1975 to more than 6 percent in 1982 and 8 percent in 1988. Table 7, which shows the percent of all French men and women in consensual unions or marriages by age group in 1988, illustrates the fact that cohabitation occurs predominantly in the younger age groups.

As in France, the younger age groups in Sweden have a higher incidence of cohabitation. For instance, in 1980, 4 out of every 5 unmarried Swedish men ages 20 to 24 were living in a consensual union, as were 68 percent of all unmarried women in that age group. In the age group 25 to 29, the proportions were 49 percent and 35 percent, respectively. Virtually all Swedes now cohabit before marriage.(9)

Sweden has long been permissive about premarital sexual relations, and even in the 1950's it was not uncommon for marriages to occur around the time the first child was to be born. The difference today is that nonmarital cohabitation is regarded legally and culturally as an accepted alternative, rather than a prelude to marriage. This is reflected by the fact that the average period over which Swedish couples remain unmarried lengthens each year, with a growing number never marrying at all.(10) The rapidly declining influence of childbirth on marriage is brought into focus by the data presented earlier on the percentage of children born out of wedlock. Statistics Sweden has been modifying its family statistics to take into account the increasing incidence of cohabitation. Thus, figures on family formation and family dissolution are replacing data on marriage and divorce, respectively.

British surveys also indicate that consensual unions have become more prevalent there.(11) The proportion of women ages 18 to 49 who were cohabiting more than doubled between 1979 and 1987. In the latter year, about 11 percent of all women ages 18 to 24 were cohabiting, about the same proportion as in France for this age group. The figure for British women ages 25 to 49 was 5 percent. Cohabitation is more prevalent at ages 25 to 29 for men and ages 20 to 24 for women. British men tend to be a few years older than their partners, as is the case in France and Sweden. Women and men who are divorced are more likely than those of other marital status to be cohabiting.

Estimates for Germany indicate that consensual unions have not reached significant proportions there. In 1981, only about 3 percent of all couples were cohabiting outside of marriage. However, the increase in numbers has been great, from 100,000 in 1972 to 440,000 in 1981. These figures may well be too low, because some German couples living in consensual unions claim to be married.(12)

The rise of the consensual union is a significant move away from the traditional nuclear form of the family. In particular, there is a higher rate of family dissolution among unmarried as opposed to married couples in all countries. Thus, where consensual unions are significantly numerous, official divorce statistics do not encompass the extent of family breakup.

Single-parent families increase

Intercountry comparisons of single-parent families are restricted by variations in definitions. The main issues relate to the upper age limit for children and the presence or absence of cohabiting parents. (See appendix.) For the comparison presented in table 8, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has obtained data for recent years using the under-18 age limit for children--the U.S. definition--allowing for more valid international comparisons of lone-parent households.

All countries shown in table 8, except Japan, have experienced significant increases in single-parent households as a proportion of all family households with children. Allowing for definitional differences, it is clear that the United States has the highest proportion of single-parent households. (See chart 1.) In 1988, more than 1 in 5 U.S. households with dependent children were single-parent households, up from fewer than 1 in 10 in 1960. Only Denmark approaches the U.S. level in the 1980's, and the Danish data are overstated because they count single-parent families instead of households; that is, they include single parents who are part of a larger household, while the U.S. figures exclude such parents. (In 1987, one-parent family groups in the United States represented 27 percent of all families with children; this figure is more comparable to the Danish proportion of 20 percent.) In France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, the incidence of lone parenthood was in the range of 10 percent to 15 percent of all households with children. Using the under-18 age limit, Sweden's proportion of lone-parent families in 1985 was closer to the U.S. proportion in 1980, but well below the U.S. figure in 1988. Of the countries covered in table 8, Japan had by far the lowest incidence of single parenthood: 5 percent to 6 percent of all households with children in the period since 1960. This is to be expected, given the low rates of divorce and births out of wedlock in Japan.

The paths to single parenthood are numerous: Marriage and childbirth with subsequent widowhood; separation or divorce; and childbirth without marriage or consensual union. Combinations of events may lead to an exit from or reentry into single-parent status--for example, divorce and subsequent remarriage. The growth in the number of single-parent families has some common demographic elements in all the countries studied.

In Europe and North America, there is a growing proportion of those entering single parenthood through marital dissolution (separation and divorce) and childbirth outside marriage, and a diminishing share arising through the premature death of a spouse. Prior to the last three decades, single-parent families were usually formed as the result of the death of one of the parents.

A recent study indicates that, with the exception of the United States, the growth of divorced and separated mothers was responsible for the vast majority of the net increase in one-parent families since 1970.(13) In the United States, family dissolution also accounted for the majority of the net increase, but the growing number of never-married mothers contributed about 40 percent of the increase as well. Even in Japan, divorce or separation has become the predominant route to single parenthood.

Another common characteristic is that the great majority of single-parent households are headed by women. In every country, 85 to 90 percent of all heads of single-parent families are women.

In all countries, single-parent families frequently have low incomes, and they are more likely than other families to experience poverty. Families headed by women are often in economic difficulty because of the absence of the father and his resources, the limited earnings of many women, and the immense difficulties of reconciling paid work and family obligations. The pressures on countries to address the requirements of these families efficiently and effectively are increasing.

Indicative of the financial instability of such families in the United States is the fact that the average difference between after-tax income and total expenditures of single-parent households in 1984-85 was negative.(14) A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics study indicated that unmarried women maintaining families are the workers with the greatest risk of living in poverty and almost one-fourth of these families are poor.(15) An Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development conference paper revealed that lone-parent family incomes were only half as much as two-parent family incomes in the United Kingdom and the United States, a little closer in France, and about four-fifths as much in the Netherlands.(16)

Great Britain was the first among the European countries to carry out an extensive official study of single-parent families, with special attention focused on mothers-only families. The Finer Committee was established by the Government in the early 1970's to study the problems of these families, and a well-publicized report was issued in 1974. The report recommended a policy goal of assuring that single mothers and their children have enough income to provide an adequate standard of living even if the mother is not in the work force, and that it not be assumed that the caretaker should go out to work. The report's recommendations have still not been implemented, and discussion of the problem and the need for more concerted attention continues.(17)

All industrialized countries except the United States have family allowance programs that provide cash payments to families with children. In addition, the Scandinavian countries provide special benefits for single parents. For example, the Swedish Government assumes the responsibility for collecting child support payments from the absent parent. When this parent fails to pay or pays irregularly, the Government makes the payment to the custodial parent, assuring a regular flow of income. The Government also guarantees a minimum level of support for each child. Further, Swedish single parents receive housing allowances, parental leave, and other benefits designed to ease the tension between work and family life. Unlike Great Britain, Sweden assumes that the single parent will work, usually on a part-time basis. Support for single mothers is much more extensive in Sweden than elsewhere; however, recent analyses reveal that single-mother families are still strongly disadvantaged economically.(18)

More persons living alone

Historically, virtually all household units have been families in some form. To live in a household was at the same time to live in a family. This is no longer the case. Many households in modern societies do not contain families, and the one-person household is the most common type of nonfamily household. Except in Japan, this type of household has shown the most rapid growth of all household types since 1960.

In the United States, one-person households increased their share from 13 percent of all households in 1960 to virtually one-quarter of all households in 1988. (See table 6.) France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom reached about the same level in the 1980's. Sweden and Germany have even higher proportions of single-person households. In Germany, they make up about 3 out of every 10 households;(19) in Sweden, they are approaching 4 out of every 10. Meanwhile, Canada and Japan have much lower proportions of these households than the other countries, about 1 out of every 5.

The fastest growing groups in the living-alone category tend to be young people in their late teens and twenties, the divorced and separated, and the elderly. In many cases, living alone is the voluntary choice of people who can afford separate housing coupled with the increased availability of such housing; higher personal incomes and pensions over the past three decades have allowed people who want to live alone to do so. From this point of view, living alone can be seen as a privilege of affluent people and an expression of individual autonomy.(20)

Sweden has built a large number of apartments in urban areas that are ideal for single people. This new housing has helped to increase the incidence of living alone in all age groups, especially among the young and middle aged, for whom living alone had been a historical rarity. In Sweden, the fastest growth in living alone has been among the younger age groups.(21)

A French study reveals that one-person households grow with the degree of urbanization.(22) That is, rural people tend to live in families, whereas urban people increasingly live alone. In Paris, for example, nearly 50 percent of the dwellings are one-person households. Swedish studies also find that one-person households are predominantly in urban areas, and this is likely to be true in all countries.(23)

A five-country study of living arrangements of young adults looked at how income from various sources affected the decision to live alone.(24) The study showed that German youth had a much higher propensity to live separately than did young people in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, or Australia. Among the five countries, youth in the United States and the United Kingdom had the lowest propensities to live alone. Earnings levels were positively correlated with living alone in the United States and the United Kingdom, and to a lesser extent in Australia, but in Germany there was no such correlation.

At the other end of the age spectrum, the proportion of the elderly living alone is generally high and increasing. The proportion of persons 65 years of age or older living by themselves at various times during the 1980's is given in the following tabulation:(25)
Country living alone
United States 30.4
Canada 27.7
Japan 8.6
Denmark 38.3
France 32.6
Germany 38.9
Netherlands 31.3
Sweden 40.0
United Kingdom 30.3

In Japan, the figure is low because nearly 65 percent of the elderly still live with their children in either two- or three-generation households. There is a sharp contrast between East and West in this area: among persons age 75 or older in Japan, fully three-quarters live with their children; in the United States, about 1 in 4 persons 65 or older lives with his or her children.(26)

Women outlive men, on average, and women tend to be younger than their spouses. Therefore, the proportion of elderly women living alone is much higher than that of elderly men in all countries studied. In the United States, about 16 percent of all men and 40 percent of all women 65 and older live alone. These proportions are similar to those for the European countries, except that in Germany and Scandinavia, about half of all elderly women live alone. In all the countries studied, women constitute about four-fifths of all one-person households maintained by people 65 and older.

The importance of elderly citizens in overall national household profiles is apparent in the percentage of single-person households in the countries studied that were maintained by an elderly person. In Germany, more than 30 percent of all households are one-person households, and half of these are individuals age 65 or older. Thus, more than 15 percent of all households in Germany consist of one elderly person. In the United Kingdom, about two-thirds of single-person households consist of one elderly person, and proportions for Denmark, France, and the Netherlands are also high. In the United States, persons 65 and older account for 40 percent of all persons living alone.

Among older persons, living alone is most often the result of having outlived a spouse. Consequently, the likelihood of living alone increases with age, although there may be a decline at the oldest ages, when the elderly enter nursing homes or homes for the aged or take in companions or boarders in a search for additional income or assistance.(27)

Both numbers and proportions of elderly living alone have risen sharply during the past three decades, although the rise in the proportion may be leveling off in North America. The number of elderly residing alone in the United Kingdom more than doubled between 1961 and 1981. In Germany, 37 percent of all widows lived alone in 1961; by 1981, the proportion was up to 63 percent. These figures partly reflect the large number of postwar widows still living with their children in 1961, but who lived alone by 1981 as their children married and moved away. For widowers, the proportion living alone rose from 41 percent to 72 percent. Among persons who were divorced, the proportion living alone hardly changed, as remarriage and cohabitation were choices that were preferred to living alone. German data also indicate a strong increase in never-married persons living alone.(28)

Mothers at work

The developed countries have witnessed notable increases in women's labor force participation since 1960, with an acceleration in the 1970's. More and more, these increases have involved mothers of dependent children, with profound effects on family life because of the problems of reconciling employment with family responsibilities. Consequently, the availability of child care facilities has become a significant issue for many families in these countries.

As women have entered the work force in increasing numbers, marriages have been postponed, the average size of the family has declined, and the divorce rate has risen. The increased economic independence of women, through labor force activity, has been a major factor behind changes in the traditional family over the past three decades.

The increases in women's labor force participation have been universal across age groups, except for teenagers in Japan and Europe and elderly women in all the countries studied. Most dramatic has been the rise in labor force participation for women 25 to 34 years of age, as shown in the following tabulation:
 Country 1970 1988
 United States 44.7 72.6
 Canada *41.2 74.9
 Japan 46.8 54.5
 Denmark ** 90.0
 France 52.2 74.5
 Germany 47.6 61.5
 Italy (ages 25-39) ***44.1 60.8
 Netherlands 23.9 55.4
 Sweden 60.7 89.4
 United Kingdom 43.3 66.0

* BLS estimate ** Not available *** 1977 data

Women ages 25 to 34 are in the primary childbearing and childrearing ages. In most of the countries shown, fewer than half of such women were in the work force in 1970. By 1988, a substantial majority were in the labor force, except in Japan and the Netherlands. Still, the Dutch women increased their participation from a low among these countries of 24 percent in 1970 to 55 percent in 1988.

Swedish women were already participating at a comparatively high rate of 60 percent in 1970, and by 1988, almost 9 out of every 10 Swedish women ages 25 to 34 were in the labor force. Danish and Swedish women in this age group had the highest participation rates, by far.

Table 9 focuses on participation rates of women with children under the age of 18 and under the age of 3 in a recent year in eight countries. Except for Italy, women with younger children tended to have lower participation rates than women with children under age 18. Danish and Swedish women continued to stand out, with more than 8 out of every 10 women with younger children participating in the work force. (The Swedish proportions are based on women with children under age 7; proportions for those with children under age 3 would be somewhat lower.) French and Canadian women, with about 6 out of 10 economically active, were second to the Scandinavian women. In the United States, about 5 out of 10 women with children under age 3 were in the labor force. The participation rates for German and British women were substantially lower than in the other countries.

Although no historical data are shown in table 9, it is clear that there has been a dramatic increase in participation rates of women with younger children. For example, about 40 percent of Swedish women with children under the age of 7 (the age at which compulsory schooling begins) were employed in 1970; today, 85 percent are working. In Canada, women's overall participation rate increased from 45 percent in 1976 to 55 percent in 1986, and the greatest increase involved women with children under 3 years of age.

Table 9 also shows participation rates for mothers without partners. In the United States, Canada, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, single mothers with young children had lower participation rates than all mothers with young children. By contrast, in France, Germany, and Italy, single mothers of young children had higher participation rates than their married counterparts.

The dramatic growth in female participation in the labor force has contributed toward substantial political pressures for more child care services in all the countries studied. Decades of both national and international debate, task forces, and commissions have resulted in a wide variety of responses. In all the countries, there have been two factors besides the participation of women in the labor force that have fueled the increase in demand for child care: Changes in family structure and changing parental attitudes and needs. As regards the first, with smaller families, there are fewer relatives to care for young children. Also, additional pressure for child care facilities has been brought about by the rise in single-parent families. Concerning parental attitudes, in the past, most parents preferred to raise their children during the early years within the family environment. Now, however, more and more families, whether the mother is working or not, are turning to day care centers, nurseries, and preschool programs to foster the intellectual, social, and emotional development of their children. As an example, preference studies in Canada show that both working and nonworking parents have a high propensity to choose licensed day care for children ages 3 to 5. There appears to be less preference for infant care, although studies vary in their conclusions as to whether this is so.(29)

There are wide differences in child care services across countries. In Europe, broadly speaking, the highest levels are found in Denmark, Sweden, and France, and the lowest in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. As a percent of gross national product, Denmark spends more than six times as much for services for children under age 5 than does the United Kingdom. In Denmark, 44 percent of all children age 2 or younger attend publicly funded day care facilities on a full-time basis. This contrasts with 1 percent to 2 percent of all very young children in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, and 16 percent to 17 percent in France. In the United States, one estimate indicates that about 20 percent of children under the age of 3 were in day care in 1984-85, largely part time. About 12 percent of children under age 3 were in day care in Canada.(30)

In all of the countries, the supply of publicly funded services is inadequate relative to the demand. Even in Denmark, with its high level of services and its population of only 5 million, present waiting lists suggest an unmet need of approximately 40,000 spaces.(31) Sweden also has a shortage of full-time day care spaces. About 55,000 children who need a place cannot be served. The Swedish Parliament recently decided that all children older than 1 1/2 years whose parents are working shall have a right to public day care after the year 1991.(32)

Canada's National Day Care Information Center estimates that licensed day care facilities serve only 7 percent of the need for spaces for children under 18 months of age. Overall, licensed day care facilities serve 12 percent of the estimated need for spaces for Canadian children age 12 and under.(33)

Public debate regarding the possible negative effects of employment on parenting has been nowhere more spirited than in Sweden. Consequently, Sweden has adopted legislative reforms expressly intended to alleviate the contradictions between work and family needs. These reforms include paid parental leave for either father or mother, time off from work to take care of a sick child, publicly supported day care, and the option of part-time work for parents of preschool children. There is widespread acceptance of these parental supports throughout the country.(34) More than other advanced industrial societies, Sweden has explicitly recognized the dilemmas of employed parents and has adopted programs to address them.

One aspect of the Swedish family support system bears further mention. Swedish parents have the right to stay home and take care of their newborn infant for quite a long time without risk of losing their jobs. They are guaranteed an economic standard corresponding to their previous salary, paid by the social insurance system. Up to 1977, the time during which financial support was provided was limited to 7 months; it has subsequently been increased in stages to 15 months as of July 1989, the last 3 of which, however, are funded at a greatly reduced level. By mid-1991, parental leave will be available for 18 months with full financial benefits.(35) Either mother or father can take advantage of the parental leave, or they can take turns. No other country offers such a generous system of parental leave.

Like Sweden, Denmark provides extensive family support programs that have eased the entry of a very high proportion of mothers into the labor force. Women employees have a right to be absent from work for 4 weeks prior to childbirth. After the baby's birth, the mother has a right to be absent from work a total of 24 weeks, of which up to 10 weeks may be used by the father. During their parental leaves, the mother and father are entitled to cash payments in compensation for their loss of income amounting to a maximum of 2,126 kroner per week, the equivalent of 67 percent of average industrial wages. Parents with low incomes receive 90 percent of their former pay, and those with high incomes receive the stipulated weekly maximum.(36)


During the past three decades, the family has undergone major transformations in all developed countries. The general direction of household composition patterns suggests a common contemporary trend to which all developed countries are a party, to a greater or lesser degree. Four major demographic developments--declining fertility, aging of the population, rising divorce rates, and an increasing incidence of childbirth out of wedlock--are underlying factors in the transformation of the modern family.

Japan is the most traditional society of the countries studied, with very low rates of divorce and births out of wedlock. It was the only country with an increase in the proportion of married-couple households since 1960. But even in Japan, the traditional nuclear family--mother, father, and children--lost ground. And Japan preceded the other countries in the decline in fertility rates.

Among the countries studied, the United States is either a leader or a follower, depending on the trend. We are a country of relative family traditionalism, as evidenced by our greater tendency to marry, and at an earlier age, than persons in other countries and to have slightly larger families; moreover, our rate of nonmarital cohabitation is still relatively low, compared with European countries, and so is our tendency to live alone. Women with young children in Scandinavia and France are well ahead of their American counterparts with respect to labor force participation and access to child care services.

Nonetheless, the United States is by no means a land of family stability. We have long had the highest incidence of divorce and single-parent families. The United States surpasses even Scandinavia in its nontraditionalism in regard to these two indicators. Thus, in some respects, this Nation is catching up to other developed countries, but in certain other respects, the rest of the developed world is following the United States. [Tabular Data 1 to 9 Omitted] [Chart 1 Omitted]


(1)Ageing Populations: The Social Policy Implications (Paris, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 1988), p. 12. (2)David Popenoe, Disturbing the Nest: Family Change and Decline in Modern Societies (New York, Aldine De Gruyter, 1988), p. 283. (3)Jean-Paul Sardon, "Evolution de la nuptialite et de la divortialite en Europe depuis la fin des annees 1960" [Movement in Marriage and Divorce Rates in Europe since the Late 1960's], Population, no. 3, May-June 1986, pp. 463--82. Population is the journal of the French National Institute of Demographic Studies. (4)Popenoe, Disturbing the Nest, p. 173. (5)United Nations, Demographic Yearbook 1986 (New York, United Nations, 1988), tables 23 and 33. (6)Karl Schwarz, "Les menages en Republique Federale d'Allemagne: 1961, 1972, 1981" [Households in the Federal Republic of Germany: 1961, 1972, 1981], Population, no. 3, May-June 1983, pp. 565-83. (7)Study by Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research, as reported in "The Week in Germany," German Information Center, New York, Sept. 8, 1989, p. 7. (8)Households, Families, Marital Status and Living Arrangements: March 1988, Current Population Reports, Series P-20, No. 432 (Advance Report) (Bureau of the Census, September 1988), p. 2. (9)Popenoe, Disturbing the Nest, p. 170. Popenoe states that only an estimated 2 percent of Swedish women marrying today have not previously cohabited with their husbands-to-be or with some other man, compared with nearly 50 percent of women born in the 1930's. (10)Popenoe, pp. 170-71. (11)Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, General Household Survey 1986 (London, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1989), pp. 23-24. (12)Schwarz, "Les menages," pp. 572-74. (13)John Ermisch, "Demographic Aspects of the Growing Number of Lone-Parent Families," Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Conference of National Experts on Lone Parents, Paris, Dec. 15-17, 1987, Paper No. 2, pp. 3-6. (14)Mark Lino, "Financial Status of Single-Parent Households," Family Economics Review, vol. 2, no. 1, 1989, p. 6. (15)Bruce W. Klein and Philip L. Rones, "A profile of the working poor," Monthly Labor Review, October 1989, p. 3. (16)Michael O'Higgins, "Lone-Parent Families in OECD Countries: Numbers and Socio-Economic Characteristics," Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Conference of National Experts on Lone Parents, Paris, Dec. 15-17, 1987, Paper No. 3, pp. 26-33. For international comparisons of poverty rates among children, see Timothy M. Smeeding and Barbara B. Torrey, "Poor Children in Rich Countries," Science, Nov. 11, 1988, pp. 873-77. See also Elizabeth Diskin, "Lone-Parenthood and the Low-Income Trap," OECD Observer, August-September 1988, pp. 22-25; and Gertrude S. Goldberg and Eleanor Kremen, Feminization of Poverty: Only in America? (New York, Greenwood Press, forthcoming). (17)For a discussion of policies regarding single-parent families in the United States and abroad, see Sheila B. Kamerman and Alfred J. Kahn, Mothers Alone: Strategies for a Time of Change (Dover, MA, Auburn House, 1988). (18)Kamerman and Kahn, Mothers Alone, pp. 95-100. (19)The German figures on one-person households in table 6 are inflated somewhat by the practice (unique to Germany) of double-counting people who maintain more than one household. For example, the same person can have two households if he or she uses a rented apartment because of work in a city other than the one in which the principal residence is maintained. This second household is counted as a single-person household in the German statistics. See Louis Roussel, "Evolution recente de la structure des menages dans quelques pays industriels" [Recent trends in the structure of households in several industrialized countries], Population, no. 6, November-December 1986, p. 916. (20)Popenoe, Disturbing the Nest, p. 194. (21)Popenoe, p. 176. See also Thora Nilsson, "Les menages en Suede, 1960-1980," [Households in Sweden, 1960-1980], Population, no. 2, Mar.-Apr. 1985, pp. 234-41. (22)Jean-Pierre Courson and Michel de Saboulin, "Menages et familles: vers de nouveaux modes de vie?" [Households and Families: New Ways of Life?] Economie et Statistique, March 1985, pp. 3-20. (23)Popenoe, Disturbing the Nest, p. 326. (24)Kathleen S. Short and Thesia I. Garner, "Living Arrangements of Young Adults Living Independently: Evidence from the Luxembourg Income Study," paper presented at the 35th Annual Conference of the American Council on Consumer Interests, Baltimore, MD, Mar. 29-Apr. 1, 1989. (25)Kevin Kinsela, Living Arrangements of the Elderly and Social Policy: A Cross-National Perspective, staff paper (Bureau of the Census, Center for International Research, forthcoming). (26)Samuel H. Preston and Shigemi Kono, "Trends in Well-Being of Children and the Elderly in Japan," chapter 11 in John L. Palmer and others, eds., The Vulnerable (Washington, Urban Institute Press, 1988), p. 282. (27)Kinsela, Living Arrangements. (28)Schwarz, "Les menages," pp. 574-88. (29)Glenn Drover, "Child Care in Canada: A Social Service Approach," paper prepared for a workshop on child care policies and programs sponsored by International Perspectives, National Academy of Sciences Summer Study Center at Woods Hole, MA, Aug. 9, 1988, p. 9. (30)Sheila B. Kamerman, "Child Care Policies and Programs: An International Overview," paper prepared for workshop on child care policies and programs, Woods Hole, MA, p. 4. (31)Peter Moss, "Comments from a European Community Perspective," paper prepared for workshop on child care policies and programs, Woods Hole, MA, p. 8. (32)Soren Kindlund, "Child Care in Sweden," paper prepared for workshop on child care policies and programs, Woods Hole, MA, pp. 3-4. (33)Drover, "Child Care in Canada," table 5, p. 27. (34)Phyllis Moen, Working Parents: Transformations in Gender Roles and Public Policies in Sweden (Madison, WI, University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p. 15. See also Bengt-Erik Andersson, "Effects of Public Day Care--A Longitudinal Study," paper prepared for workshop on child care policies and programs, Woods Hole, MA. (35)The Swedish Budget 1989/90 (Stockholm, Ministry of Finance, 1989), p. 83. (36)Jacob Vedel-Petersen, "Child Care Policies and Programs in Denmark," paper prepared for workshop on child care policies and programs, Woods Hole, MA, pp. 16-17.

Constance Sorrentino is an economist in the Division of Foreign Labor Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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Title Annotation:The American Family During the 20th Century
Author:Sorrentino, Constance
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Mar 1, 1990
Previous Article:Work and family: the impact of legislation.
Next Article:Fetal protection.

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