Changing Family Values in the UK

Attitudes to family life in the UK and Europe have become more liberal in the last decade

Attitudes towards family life have become more ‘postmodern’ and less conservative between 2006/07 and 2018/19.

According to the latest British Social Attitudes Survey which measures ‘family values’ by five questions about whether individuals approve or disapprove about different aspects of family life:

  • remaining childless (disapproval fell from 8% to 6% in the last ten years)
  • cohabitation (disapproval fell from 14 to 8%)
  • having children while cohabiting (out of marriage) (21 to 12%)
  • Being in full time work with children under three (20 to 11%)
  • Divorce with children under 12 (disapproval fell from 28% to 16%)

What this shows us is that individual values about family life have become more Post/ Late Modern over the last decade – many of these indicators suggest more individualisation, more support for freedom of choice and (surprisingly) divorcing even with children.

There is also a clear shift away from New Right views with increasing support for cohabitation (rather than marriage) being a suitable family arrangement for raising children.

Older generations dying explain this shift in values

The British social attitudes survey analyses their findings by comparing family values across five generations – split as follows:

  • Born 1901-1927 – the Greatest Generation
  • Born 1928-1945 – the Silent Generation
  • Born 1946-1964 – the Baby Boomers
  • Born 1965-1980 – Generation X
  • Born 1981-1996 – Millennials
  • Born 1997-2012 – Generation Z

Unfortunately this shift towards more liberal family values hasn’t occurred because of (older) people changing their minds and become more tolerant of family diversity, rather it’s because the older generations have died and their traditional family values have died with them.

This is best illustrated if we compare the family values of the oldest and youngest generations:

In the 2006/07 survey there were still large numbers of the ‘Great Generation’ alive (those born between 1901 and 1927) who had VERY conservative values about the family, however by the 2018/19 survey the youngest member of this generation would have been 91 and the oldest 117, resulting in insufficient numbers for a representative sample, hence this generation disappears from the survey results by 2018/19.

While for Generation Z who would have been too young to take part in the survey ten years ago, they now appear in the latest results, albeit in small numbers (because some would still be too young!) and these have much more liberal attitudes.

You can also clearly see the shift towards more liberal values more generally in the chart above.

One final thing to think about is the changing attitudes to working with young children – more people probably think this is OK because they know people increasingly HAVE to work to pay the bills, so it’s not as if this is a matter of choice for most parents with younger children!

Changing European Family Values

The report also compares changing attitudes to family life to changes in other countries in Europe:

Family values are getting more liberal in EVERY European country except Sweden (but that had VERY low disapproval ratings to start with!), suggesting this is a regional trend, although other countries started from a ‘higher base’ of more conservative family values.

Signposting and Related Posts

This post has primarily been written for students of A-level sociology and is relevant to the families and households module.

It seems to be valid evidence showing a shift towards postmodern values and away from new right views on the family and it is also relevant to marriage and divorce and family diversity topics as these trends help explain the decline in marriage and increase in divorce – they show that more people think it’s acceptable to not be married before starting a family and OK to divorce even if you have younger children.

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Sources/ Find out More

The full BSA report on the family is worth a read!

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