The effect of WW2. On Tuesday, we talked about death; now let’s talk about life. The above graph shows the percentage of live births outside of marriage or, more recently, civil partnership in England and Wales since 1938. I’ve gone back that far for one reason: to show you the spike that occurred around the Second World War. In 1938, 4.2 per cent of babies were born outside of marriage. By 1944 that proportion had more than doubled to 9.3 per cent, before it reduced back to the 4-point-somethings in the 1950s. As a Sergeant Major would put it, “As you were.”
When the rise began… The next proper increase came in the 1960s, when, presumably, the loosening of social attitudes outstripped the usefulness of the pill. But that came to an end before the end of the decade. It wasn’t until the 1970s when things began to really take off. The proportion of babies born outside of marriage has increased every year since 1971, except one – and in that year, 2013, it decreased by just 0.1 percentage points.
…and where it’s gone. Where are we at now? In 2014, some 47.5 per cent of live births occurred outside of marriage or civil partnership, which is the joint-highest total on record. From 8.4 per cent to 47.5 per cent in the space of forty-odd years. It’s got to be one of the most significant social changes across that period.
Marriage isn’t the be-all and end-all… I don’t say any of this to value marriage beyond its worth. That ain’t my style, as I proved when arguing against marriage tax breaks on the grounds that are a costly way of achieving very little. Besides, the usual caveat applies: children can be raised perfectly well even when their parents aren’t hitched.
…but it matters. But it would be foolish to ignore all of the data – some of it summarised here – that suggests how having married parents can improve a child’s chances in life. This is why the change described in today’s graph is so significant: it’s a lot more than just a change in numbers. And could it be significant, too, that this change has slowed recently? Since 2010, the proportion of babies born outside of marriage has increased at half the rate of the previous 5 years. The 50 per cent mark is being pushed further into the future.