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Gender, International

Changing attitudes toward marriage and children in six countries

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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

    Writer: | Last updated: November 29, 2012

    Citation: Gubernskaya, Zoya. "Changing Attitudes toward Marriage and Children in Six Countries," Sociological Perspectives, Summer 2010, Vol. 53, No. 2, 179-200. doi: 10.1525/sop.2010.53.2.179.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "On Gay Marriage, Europe Strains to Square 27 Interests."

    1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover issues of changing attitudes about marriage and family?

    Read the full study titled "Changing Attitudes toward Marriage and Children in Six Countries."

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?