Government study indicates breakdown in traditional family life in Britain

January 27, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

LONDON -- Quaint views of the English collapse under the scrutiny of government number crunchers who find that every second marriage ends in divorce, there's a one-in-five chance the couple next door in the thatched cottage isn't married and every third child is born out of wedlock.

The 24th edition of Social Trends, published today by the Government Statistics Service, isn't exactly a hot update of "Lady Chatterly's Lover," but it rattles a few stereotypes with its numbers.

The figures in Social Trends show that the old nuclear family beloved by Prime Minister John Major and his Conservative Party colleagues is by no means dead, but it's in severe decline.

Conservative junior ministers and parliamentarians have admitted fathering a half-dozen or so children by women with whom they're not married, adding to the 1.7 million children in families headed by a single mother in Britain.

One-parent families increased by about 24 percent between 1987 and 1991, according to Social Trends statisticians. Divorce and births outside of marriage are among the causes.

Since divorce laws were relaxed in 1984, the British have not seen a great deal of necessity to be uncomfortable in marriage.

In 1991, there were more than 171,000 divorces -- a record, but one that probably won't stand any longer than the next update of statistics. Just 350,000 people married in 1991, some 50,000 less than in 1961, when many of their parents married.

The couple coming down the aisle these days has a very good chance of having done it all before. Over a third of all marriages in 1991 were remarriages: The bride, groom or both had been divorced.

Perhaps the saddest trend the government statisticians uncovered is that some of the fastest-growing households in Britain are not families at all. People living alone make up a quarter of all households in Britain, twice as many as in 1961. Social scientist don't define people living alone as families.

Most of the people living alone are pension-age women. But the biggest increase in these "one-person households" is among younger men who can look forward to a lifetime of solitude. Projections have them making up one-tenth of all "households" in Britain by the turn of the century.

But many people live together in Britain, without benefit of clergy, as the tenderhearted Henry Mencken used to put it.

In 1992, Social Trends reports, somewhat in the manner of the neighborhood busybody, that about one in five unmarried men and women between 16 and 59 years old were "cohabiting." Social Trends didn't say what folks 60 years old and over were doing. Girls between 13 and 15, though, had "9.5 conceptions per thousand."

One of every three children was born in some place described as "outside of marriage."

But Carol Summerfield, associate editor of Social Trends, observed that over half the births outside marriage were registered to both parents, living at the same address, "indicating a stable relationship."

The fertility rate of British women, an average of 1.8 children per woman, was second-highest in the 12-nation European Union (EU), as certain members of Parliament can attest to. But that was still below the replacement rate (2.1) if anybody wants to replace MPs.

Married women on average, Social Trends says, were older than ever when they had their first baby, 27.8 years old. Unmarried women were 25.2 years old at their first birth.

A British girl born today can expect to live to be 79, a boy 74, a gain of 12 years each in the last half-century. Life expectancy currently increases by about two years every decade, Social Trends analysts say.

Real disposable income reached its highest level ever in 1992. And in the cute computations of statisticians we learn the average married man had to work five minutes to buy a loaf of bread or a liter (1.76 pints) of gasoline, 12 minutes to buy a pint of beer, 20 minutes for a pack of king-size filter cigarettes and 35 minutes for a pound of steak.

But he's nonetheless buying less steak. Britons, the champions of the million-calorie meal, have become health conscious and eat less fat, less beef and veal, less lamb and mutton and more chicken. They don't drink a "pint'a milk" a day anymore either, only about 3 1/2 pints a week -- half of that skim milk.

But men still drink their share of nut-brown ale or maybe scotch. They averaged 15.9 "units" of alcohol weekly, a unit being a half-pint of beer or a glass of wine or a measure of scotch. Women more modestly drink 5.4 units a week, whatever their pleasure.

About 27 percent of all men and 11 percent of the women drink more than a "sensible" amount of alcohol, more than 21 "units" a week for men, according to somebody's reckoning, 14 for women.

In their spare time, the British watch television, visit or entertain friends, listen to the radio, tapes or records, read books, garden, fix up the house or knit and sew -- in that order.

Their favorite three physical activities are walking, swimming and snooker. Soccer, "Britain's so-called national sport," is tenth and played by just 9 percent of all adults.

Cricket doesn't even make the Social Trends list of popular sports. "And the English don't play it too well anymore," quipped a press officer.

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