Expert Commentary

Changing attitudes toward marriage and children in six countries

2010 study in Sociological Perspectives using three datasets on changing attitudes toward traditional marriage structures and child bearing.

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Changes in family structure and attitudes toward family have obviously taken place in the past few decades across the West. Family-related data are often assessed at the national level, but how do similar countries compare with one another?

A 2010 study from U.C. Irvine published in Sociological Perspectives, “Changing Attitudes toward Marriage and Children in Six Countries,” analyzed three separate datasets — during the years 1988, 1994 and 2002 — from the International Social Survey Programe (ISSP) to examine common trends. The countries compared were Austria, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United States. The study focused primarily on three questions relating to marriage and children.

The study’s findings include:

  • “From 1988 to 1994 in all countries but Germany, there was a decline in support for the statement ‘Married people are generally happier,’ although it was steeper in Ireland and Great Britain than in other countries. This downward trend continued from 1994 to 2002 in the U.S., Germany, and Austria. But in Great Britain, Ireland, and the Netherlands, support for the belief that married people are happier rebounded, although only in the Netherlands was the change statistically significant at the .05 level.”
  • In all six countries, there was a decline in in the level of agreement with the statement “People who want children ought to get married.”
  • Support for the statement “People who had never had children lead empty lives” declined over the period studied in only three countries: Great Britain, the United States and Ireland.
  • Over time, “Americans have become less traditional on all three [of the above statements], although the changes with regard to the opinion that ‘Marriage is better if people want to have children’ were small compared to the other countries and significant only over the entire 1988-2002 period.”
  • “Compared to Americans, Austrians and Germans are not significantly different, but British, Irish and Dutch hold less traditional attitudes.”
  • While there were not statistically significant differences in opinions between the 18-24 year old and the 25-34 year cohorts, “older cohorts are still more traditional than younger generations.”
  • One of the strongest patterns found in the study was that “those who attend religious services at least once a month hold significantly more traditional views about marriage and children.”
  • One distinct commonality cross-nationally was that “in all countries in this study, respondents who are women, never married, better educated, employed and relatively secularized hold less traditional views about marriage and children.”

The study concludes that “despite the persistent cross-national and socio-demographic differences in support for marriage and children at any given time point, the general trend toward greater nontraditionalism can be seen in different countries and for all socio-demographic groups. At the same time, large unexplained cross-national differences point at the importance of contextual factors for better understanding of changes in support for marriage and children.”

For a closer look at U.S. attitudes on these questions over time, see the Pew Research Center’s 2010 report “The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families” and 2012 update “No Reversal in Decline of Marriage.” Also see the Pew Global Attitudes Project’s 2010 report for more comparative international perspective on gender issues and marriage.

Tags: parenting, children, women and work, family

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