Are stepfamilies on the decline?

According to official figures just released, over the last ten years there has been a dramatic decline in the number of households in Britain in which a stepmother or stepfather is bringing up children from their partner’s previous relationship.

The figures have been released by the Office for National Statistics and show that the number of stepfamilies, including unmarried and married parents, has dropped by 14 per cent in decade before the 2011 census. The number of stepfamilies in England and Wales has fallen from 631,000 in 2001 to 544,000 in 2011.

The same period also saw a huge rise in the birth rate with the total number of families with dependent children increasing by 150,000 to 4.3 million.

This fall in the number of stepfamilies has come despite claims the traditional nuclear family is in decline as a result of rising divorce rates, increasing numbers of cohabiting couples and same-sex couples having children.

Commenting on the figures, the Office for National Statistics said that there didn’t seem to be a clear explanation for the fall in stepfamilies but did suggest that it could be down to people having children later on in life, making them less likely to have children from past relationships.

The ONS also suggest that although attitudes to marriage are becoming increasingly liberal, in the UK the traditional urge to settle down and start a family still remains strong.

It has been suggested by some commentators that many couples are making a deliberate choice to live apart due to disincentives in the benefits and tax system, whilst many divorce lawyers have said that the fall proves that parents are increasingly adopting a ‘once bitten, twice shy’ attitude to new relationships.

The majority of the changes seem to be down to the numbers of unmarried couples: the number of cohabiting couples bringing up children from a previous relationship – which means they are counted as stepfamilies – has fallen by 29 per cent to 203,000 during the last ten years. In contrast, the number of cohabiting couples who are bringing up just their own children has increased by 43 per cent.

The ONS made the following comment: “Possible factors include a rise in the average age at which women have their first baby.

This means that children are less likely to be born to younger couples who are more likely to break up.

This may lessen the chance of children becoming stepchildren later on.

Lone parents may be increasingly likely to have a partner who lives elsewhere. This partner may be a stepparent to the lone parent’s children while not living with them permanently.”

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