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New lifestyles, new data – planners need a modern definition of the ‘family’


A wider range of social and demographic data to enable planners and policymakers cope with huge changes in people’s living arrangements is called for in an important new booklet published today by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It will involve re-defining what we mean by ‘family’ and households.

The advice comes against a background of:

- an ageing population;
- a decline in marriage;

- rising cohabitation, divorce and re-partnering;
- more births to unmarried parents; and
- a major move towards solo living.

Information will be needed beyond that provided by today’s official registers of births, marriages and deaths, censuses and surveys, according to professors Mike Murphy, of the London School of Economics, and John Ermisch, of the University of Essex,
‘Changing household and family structures and complex living arrangements’, is published today by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to accompany a seminar held in conjunction with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the British Society for Population Studies (BSPS).

In it, Professor Murphy points out that, traditionally, data collection have used the household as the unit of analysis and have tended to be relatively unconcerned with what happens beyond its borders. He says: “It is increasingly important to be aware that ‘the family’ is not simply the group of close relatives that one lives with at a particular point in time.

“There are increasing proportions of children not living with their biological parents (and often with step-parents) and adults with former partners alive. And as average length of life increases and older people are less likely to be living with their children, who are major providers of informal care, their needs will be met increasingly from outside the household.”

Professor Ermisch says: “Marriage and birth registration data shows us that major changes are taking place as to when in their lives people form family units. For instance, the age at which one-half of women had married at least once rose from 24 for those born in 1962, to 29 for women born in 1971. The median age for women having their first baby also increased - from 26.5 to 28.

“This difference between postponing marriage and motherhood immediately suggests that more women must be having their first child outside of marriage. However, it is not actually possible to confirm this inference by examining registration statistics alone. The problem is that official data collected at registration only records the order of births for those within marriage.”

The booklet accompanies the start of a series of special seminars organised by the ESRC with the ONS, at which policy departments and academic experts will discuss key issues for those who provide official data.

Professor Ian Diamond, Chief Executive of the ESRC, will chair the first seminar, on May 18 in London. He said: “Clearly there are major implications here across housing, planning and the environment, as well as challenges for those attempting to estimate and measure the population. That is why what is going on in households and family is at the very top of our agenda.”

Alexandra Saxon | alfa
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