The evolution of the European family

Cultural Insights — By on October 9, 2006 at 12:23 pm

Time Magazine recently had an interesting article on the changing nature of the family in Europe.  The nuclear family is less central to life than it used to be, according to the story.  Although the traditional structure is still common, many other types of family have arisen, as Europeans choose to have children outside of marriage, to delay childbirth, to take on a gay or lesbian partner, or not to have children at all, among other examples.

There’s a revolution sweeping through Europe, one more radical than any baby boomer on hallucinogenics could have dreamt up. The ideal of family life … of the nuclear family, that is, a man and woman, plus the offspring that they alone produced – is being toppled. In its place, Europeans are developing their own, innovative models of family. For millions, that means delaying the decision to have children until later in life – or not having them at all.

For others, it means accepting a union between a gay or lesbian couple as a family, whether or not the Catholic Church agrees. Still other couples split up and re-form, in ever more complex constellations involving stepchildren and adopted children, as well as co-parents and friends who are co-opted as carers. For better or worse – and these changes all carry economic and emotional consequences – most European adults no longer live their lives in the bosom of a nuclear family. …

The nuclear family is not dead – some 29% of E.U. households still include dependent children – but the age gap between parents and children is widening. … But even as the age horizon of traditional parenthood expands, many other options are now available.

Some 13% of Europeans live alone, and every year the proportion of solo dwellers rises. So too do the ranks of heterosexual and single-sex couples living without children who now – at 49% of households – represent the most common form of family unit across Europe. Some have watched their kids leave the nest, others will never have children, but all are likely to spend the biggest chunk of their life in the company of their partner only.

Simply put, the definition of family is increasingly flexible, its constituent parts ever more diverse. While the family was once seen as a form of fate – it chose you – it’s now increasingly something that Europeans choose and define by and for themselves.

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