Is walking down the aisle losing appeal?

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In Eastern Germany, women have greater economic autonomy and nonmarital births are more common

(The following text is based on the original article Why are marriage and family formation increasingly disconnected across Europe? A multilevel perspective on existing theories by MPIDR researcher Sebastian Klüsener and has with minor changes also been published in the issue 3/2017 of the demographic quarterly Demografische Forschung Aus Erster Hand.)

Until the 1960s, the "Golden Age of Marriage" prevailed in most of Europe. It had a clear norm: People wanting to establish a family certainly tied the knot first. In today’s time, however, adherence to this norm hinges on the country in question, the woman’s social status, and her economic autonomy, says a study by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research.

There has been much discussion in Germany about the institution of marriage over the past months: What purpose does marriage serve? Whom does it protect? And what has marriage still to do with having children? And indeed, in many countries marriage and family formation has since long not been as closely linked as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, the “Golden Age of Marriage” prevailed in most of Europe: Most people walked down the aisle before having a first child. But this social norm has shifted over the last decades. Today, many couples get married only after they had a child. Or they do not get married at all.


Tab 1: The share of nonmarital first births is lower among cohabiting couples in countries with high levels of religiosity and where women have a weaker position in the labor market (figures refer to the period under study). Source: Harmonized Histories, Generations and Gender Survey, Generations and Gender Contextual Database, European Social Survey, European Value Survey, own calculations.

Sebastian Klüsener of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Trude Lappegård of Oslo University, and Daniele Vignoli of the University of Florence investigate why the link between marriage and family formation is apparently weakening and what factors are driving this process. To this end, they have analyzed harmonized survey data from 16 European countries; the data inter alia contain information on birth, religiosity, social and economic aspects, and on the education level of individual mothers (see Table 1).

The representative study looks at women who live in marriage or non-marital cohabitation and who had their first child between 2000 and 2007. The data show considerable variations in Europe. For example: In Norway and Estonia, the share of unwed first births is 60%.  It is comparably high in France, Austria, Great Britain and Belgium, but still very low in Poland and Italy (see Table 1 and Figure 1). The authors of the study also analyzed the extent to which country-level and subnational regional-level variations in social attitudes and economic conditions play a role in these variations, using official statistics and data from other surveys.

Previous studies on the growing number of births outside of marriage mainly offer two explanations; but prima facie they do not seem to be consistent. Some scholars view the increase as a manifestation of progress, inter alia driven by gains made in the economic independence of women and by increasing individualization. For women economically dependent on the partner, marriage offers financial security against separation from or the death of the partner. But these economic aspects are losing importance when both partners are in full-time employment and when state support and assistance is available for individuals in need. At the same time, many people turn from traditional and religious norms that govern birth to take place within marriage only.

On the basis of this progress-centered approach, we might expect the higher socio-economic groups to be forerunners in the increase of nonmarital childbearing. But in many countries, just the opposite applies: Births out of wedlock are especially common in the lower educational classes. This finding is central to alternative theoretical explanations that see the gains in unmarried births as a negative development sustained by the increase in economic insecurity in the lower socio-economic groups.


Figure 2: Progressive countries with a high level of economic autonomy among women have a higher share of nonmarital births. On the individual level, however, highly educated women are more likely than their less-educated counterparts to have their first child within marriage. (The model has additional control variables). Source: Harmonized Histories (Generations and Gender Survey and other surveys, own calculations. Significance levels: #p < 0,1; *p < 0,05; **p < 0,01 ***p < 0,001


In their study, Sebastian Klüsener and his co-authors take an explanatory approach aimed to resolve the inconsistencies between the two theories: Both explanations are important in understanding the gains in unmarried births, but their relevance hinges on whether research looks at variations between countries, subnational regions, or individuals. For example, in order to explain why many highly developed Northern and Western European countries are forerunners in unwed birth gains, the approach that sees this tendency in the context of progress made seems to be relevant. There were significantly more first births to unmarried cohabiting couples in countries where women have higher levels of economic autonomy. The same applies to countries where people are less religious.

The alternative theory, by contrast, which attributes rising nonmarital births primarily to higher economic insecurity, does little to explain the variations between the countries. The models did not show any association between the unemployment level in the given country and the likelihood of nonmarital first birth. But the theory is very useful when looking at individual-level variations within countries. The risk of highly educated women to have thier first child out of wedlock is halved compared to that of their less-educated counterparts (see Figure 2), the study says.  For the regional level, the authors found that births outside of marriage is more likely to occur in regions with higher unemployment levels.

Figure 1: Large variations in Europe: The geographic location impacts the decision whether to marry before having a first child. Source: Harmonized Histories (Generations and Gender Survey and other surveys), own calculations. Base map: Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research and Chair for Geodesy and Geoinformatics (2017), administrative boundaries mainly based on Eurogeographics. The plot in the upper right corner shows the density curve of the 116 regions.


The results also contribute to understanding the large variations in nonmarital birth between Eastern and Western Germany. In 2015, the share of unmarried births in Eastern Germany was 60%; this compares to a mere 30% in Western Germany, i.e. half the value. The marked difference is partly due to strong gains in nonmarital births in Eastern Germany during the transition period following the act of unification. But this does not seem to provide the full picture. According to the authors, Eastern Germany’s high share of unmarried births is also a legacy of the former division into two states: Women in this region have a stronger position in the labor market than their western German counterparts, inter alia owing to better access to childcare outside the family. It is thus unlikely that the current east-west convergence in unemployment levels will lead to convergence in nonmarital births.

Co-author of the scientific study: Sebastian Klüsener


More Information

Original article: Why are marriage and family formation increasingly disconnected across Europe? A multi-level perspective on existing theories, Lappegård, T., Klüsener, S., Vignoli, D., Population, Space and Place, Early View (2017), DOI:10.1002/psp.2088