Shame about Single Mums

An excellent documentary about the history of single mums in the UK featuring Jamelia

This is an excellent documentary for A-level sociology students studying the families and households option.

The documentary explores the experience of being a single parent in the Victorian era, through the 1960s, into the 1990s, with the conservative championing of the married, nuclear family, and through to the the present day.

Jamelia makes an excellent host, she’s very empathetic with the women she interviews during the documentary, I guess given her experience of being a single parent, which she also talks about.

The documentary is well organised into the following general sections:

Single Mums in Victorian workhouses

It seems that this was the lot of single parents in the Victorian era – seperated from their children and both sent to workhouses. Grim!

Single Mums in the 1960s

Despite the ‘sexual liberation’ of the ‘swinging ’60s’ there was still a stigma attached to getting pregnant out of wedlock. This section features a heart-wrenching interview with a woman who got pregnant at 14 and was coerced by her parents to have her baby in a distant ‘hospital’ and immediately give it up for adoption.

The Conservative backlash against single mums in the 1990s

The documentary also explores some of the more recent moral panic over single parenting – there’s a very interesting section at the end where a statistician exposes the way stats on ‘problem children of single parents’ are reported in a misleading way.


This is just a brief summary. The documentary is from 2011 (originally it aired on BBC3), but it’s still a useful historical source, especially the section on the 1960s!

Please click here to return to the homepage –

Statistics on Same Sex Marriage and Civil Partnerships

This post explores the similarities and differences in marriage and civil partnership between same sex and opposite sex couples in England and Wales. It has been written to fit in with the A-level Sociology families and households specification.

This table from the the Government Equality Office outlines some of the legal differences between marriage and Civil Partnerships for opposite and same-sex couples.

Trends in Civil Partnerships 2005-2018

The introduction of the Civil Partnerships Act in 2005 saw a huge number of male and female same sex couples becoming civil partners, with the yearly number of civil partnerships stabilising at just over 6000 a year in the late 2000s.

The introduction of same-sex marriage in 2014 saw a further drop, so that now there are just under 1000 civil partnerships a year, with male couples slightly more likely to form them than female couples.

It seems that marriage is taking over from civil partnerships.

The ONS reported in 2017 that ‘A total of 4,850 marriages were formed between same sex couples in 2014. Of these, 44% (2,129) were between male couples and 56% (2,721) were between female couples.’

Sources: ONS Civil Partnerships in England and Wales 2018, and 2017.

Married, Civil Partnered and Cohabiting Same Sex Households

The number of same-sex couples married couple households has increased substantially between 2015-2019.

In 2019 approximately 50% of same-sex couples were either married or in a civil partnership, with around 50% cohabiting.


LGBTQ by marital status

Almost 70% of LGBTQ people identify as single. Interestingly around 12% are married to someone of the opposite sex.

Only 5-6% are divorced, but then again with such high rates of singledom, this maybe is to be expected!


Same-Sex Marriage in Global Perspective

This is an interesting article by the PEW global research center which explores briefly the 20 or so countries in which same sex couples can get married…

Civil Partnership Dissolutions

At first glance, these seem to have rise to quite a high number – in 2018 there were almost as many dissolutions as there were newly formed civil partnerships!

NB Women are more likely to dissolve than men, even though they are less likely to form a civil partnership in the first place. In fact, 80

Source: ONS Civil Partnerships in England and Wales 2018.

The median duration of marriage for same-sex couples who divorced in 2018 was 3.9 years for men and 3.5 years for women. (ONS, Divorces in England and Wales 2018). 80% of divorces are to female couples!

NB there is currently very little data to go on for same sex divorces, as there are so few marriages!

Please click here to return to the homepage –

Research on Same Sex Parenting

One obvious difference between same-sex and opposite sex couples when it comes to children is that same-sex couples don’t have the biological requirements to create their own children between them, so they have to seek alternative options.

The NHS outlines various different pathways for same-sex parents to raise children (the same options as for opposite sex couples who can’t conceive!) including using sperm donors, co-parenting, adoption and surrogacy.

Adoption is an increasingly popular option, and the number of adoptions to same-sex couples has been increasing recently, while the number to opposite sex couples has been in decline.

Same-sex adoptions, UK figures.

This means there are increasing numbers of same-sex families, relative to opposite sex families with children.

Are there differences in the way same-sex and opposite-sex families parent their children?

Psychologist Rachel Farr recently conducted a Longitudinal Study with 100 adopted families, and found no differences in outcomes of middle-aged children between same-sex and opposite-sex families. Generally, all children were well adjusted and saw being adopted as positive, irrespective of the sexuality of their parents. (Source, study from 2019.)

A 2017 Study from Australia entitle ‘The Kids are OK: it is Discrimination Not Same-Sex Parents that Harms Children‘ found that children from same-sex families have just as good outcomes as children raised in opposite-sex families, based on a review of 30 years worth of research into the topic.

By ‘outcomes’ they mean the chances of having good mental health, good educational results, not becoming a criminal etc.

This Fact Check article in The Conversation on the topic goes back further and summarises yet more research that supports the consensus that same-sex parents are as ‘good’ as opposite-sex parents. However it also reminds us that there is considerable discrimination against same-sex parents, and there are some people who will selectively publish research which seems to paint same-sex parenting in a bad light, and reminds us that we should always scrutinise such research.

This recent blog post by Marina Everri from 2016 explores the experience of being a same-sex parent in Italy, and argues that while the outcomes of children are the same, problems arise for same-sex parents and children because of discrimination from outside the family circle – in schools for example.

This much more in-depth article shows how same-sex couples in eight European countries suffer from discrimination when trying to adopt. Discrimination can be an off-putting factor which may prevent some same-sex couples from going through with adoption.

Finally, there isn’t much qualitative research on the experience of being in a same-sex family, but I did find this from Stonewall, but it’s from 2009-10!

Family diversity by Social Class

the middle classes are more likely to get married and have babies later, and fewer of them.

How do aspects of family life such as marriage, divorce, cohabitation, birth and death rates vary by social class?

This post has been written to fit the A-level sociology specification, families and households topic.

While social class and income levels are not the same thing, I’ve had to use Income as a ‘proxy’ for social class given that the research tends to look at family variation by income or level of education rather than class more generally.

Marriage, divorce and social class

If we take level of education as a proxy for social class, then then middle class couples are more likely to get married than working class couples. (1)

bar charts showing marriage and divorce rates by 'social class' )if we use level of education as a proxy for social class!)

50% of adults aged over 16  with level four qualifications were married, compared to only 40% of adults with no qualifications.

The divorce rates are more equal across educational levels, but those with level 4 education have slightly lower divorce rates than other education levels. 

Those with lower levels of education are more likely to be ‘separated but not divorced’.

More educated women have fewer babies

If we take educational level of parents as a proxy for the educational level of their female children then more educated women have fewer babies and have them later. (2)

Women with more educated parents have children later in life and have fewer children. 

Women with parents who have higher levels of education achievement are less likely to have children by the age 30: 

The study split women into two groups: those with parents with ‘low’ and ‘high’ levels of education. 

In 2017-20, 52% of women in the low education parents group had children by the age of 30 compared to only 39% of women in the high education group. 

The difference between these two groups had widened since 2010-12, when 60% of low-education women had children by age 30, compared to 50% of high education women.  

NB the birth rates for women of all ‘social classes’ declined between 2010-12 and 2017-20. 

Historical data

The above findings are supported by ONS research from 2014 professional women have long tended to have babies later than ‘working class’ women.

Only 3% of births to women under 30s are to women in higher managerial or professional classifications, but this figure rises to 14% for women over 40.

NB – the above doesn’t factor in how many women are in each category of social class, I include that table below…

So it’s difficult to tell from the above! But it does seem that the higher up the social class scale you go, the later in life women have babies!

Previous research from the University of Southampton found that half of women born in 1958 who obtained no educational qualifications had a child by the age of 22, while for those with degrees the age was 32.

This means that the term ‘generation’ could actually mean different things to different classes.

Source: Daily Mail Article from 2012.

Teen Pregnancies and social class

Poor teens are much more likely to get pregnant and have babies than rich teens

According to The Poverty Site, teenage motherhood is eight times as common amongst those from manual social background as for those from managerial and professional backgrounds.

Also, the underage conception rate is highest in the North East of England.  Its rate of 11 per 1,000 girls aged 13 to 15 compares to 6 per 1,000 in the region with the lowest rate.

Variations in ‘Life Paths’ by Social Class (American focus)

Research published in 2017 by Opportunity America shows considerable variation in marriage and divorce rates, and ‘life paths’ by social class.

The research divides ‘social classes’ by ‘poor’ ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’ and shows that:

  • 56% of people aged between 18-55% in the Middle and Upper classes were currently married, compared to only 26% of those who were ‘poor’.
  • Despite having lower marriage rates, the ‘poor’ also had higher divorce rates: 46% of ‘poor’ 18-55 year olds had ‘ever been divorced’ compared to only 30% of middle-upper classes.
  • The fertility rates also vary, being 2.4 and 1.7 respectively for the above two groups.
  • The Life Paths also vary, as below:

NB I quite like the above chart, it’s go a hint of the personal life perspective, life-course analysis about it!

Questions to consider

  • The final piece of research is from America, to what extent would you expect to find similar variations in family life by social class in the UK?
  • Give the lack of contemporary data, how might you track the relationship between social class and family life more accurately?

Thoughts and comments

There is only limited data available on the relationship between social class and family life – so much so that you often have to go back almost a decade to find the latest research. It’s very much a gap in official statistics!

Using ‘Income’ data rather than class data is a limitation of the research, the same limitation as when using Free School Meal data as a proxy for social class in the differential educational achievement debate.

Sometimes it is even impossible to find data on the relationship between income and family life – for example, there are no official statistics collected on the relationship between income and divorce, according to this response to a question from the ONS.

Sources and Signposting

This material is mainly relevant to the families and households module, normally taught in the first year of A-level sociology.

(1) Marriage and Civil Partnership Status in England and Wales, UK Census 2021.

(2) Ermisch, J (2022) The recent decline in period fertility in England and Wales: Differences associated with family background and intergenerational educational mobility

The Sex Map of Britain

The Sex Map of Britain is a very interesting recent documentary series which ‘meets people for whom sex, sexuality and having children is far from straightforward.

The series covers the following topics:

  • The reality of being a ‘cheap prostitute’ – selling sex for as little as £4.
  • Why some people choose a career in porn.
  • Asexuality – why some people just don’t want sex.
  • Transgender escorts and parenting urges.
  • The journey of freezing eggs and ‘alternatives’ to IVF.
  • And a trip behind the scenes of a sexual health clinic.

Unfortunately the episode on polyamory has disappeared.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is a terrific series to get students to explore the wonderful diversity of relationships and sexuality in postmodern society, and taken together, this collection clearly illustrates the postmodern view of modern family life – that there’s no longer such a thing as a ‘normal’ family or relationship!

There are nine available episodes available on iplayer for the next 10 months, and, suitably for a documentary series which explores the diversity of family life in postmodern society, they are all nice and short, so perfect for postmodern students with postmodern attention spans (i.e. short ones).

Conceptualizing Family Diversity

A summary of the Rapoport’s five types of family diversity and ‘extreme’ diversity theorists Alan Crow and Beck-Gernsheim.

Both Functionalist and Marxist Sociologists theorised that the nuclear family was central to most people’s experiences in modern industrial society. However, recent research has suggested that postmodern societies are characterised by a plurality, or diversity, of household and family types, and so the idea of a dominant or normal family type is now misleading.

The cereal packet image of the family

In the 1980s Feminist Sociologist Ann Oakley (1982) described the image of the typical or ‘conventional’ family. She said, ‘conventional families are nuclear families composed of legally married couples, voluntarily choosing the parenthood of one or more (but not too many) children. Leach (1967) called this the ‘cereal packet image of the family’ because this image is the prominent in advertising, especially with ‘family sized’ products such as boxes of cereal.

Deborah Chambers (2001) argues that in the 1950s, English speaking countries developed ideas about sexuality, intimate relationships, living arrangements, reproduction and socialisation of children that were all based on the white middle class nuclear family, the image of which was prominent in the media at that time, and a number of comedies derived their humour from showing families which did not fit this norm, such as the Adam’s Family.

Chambers argues that there have also been a number of media-induced moral panics concerning non-nuclear families – especially single parent families, and concludes that many people lived under the spell of the ideology of the nuclear family well beyond the 1950s, and many of us still live under it today, holding this up as the ‘ideal family type’.

cereal packet family America 1950s
The cereal packet family: common in adverts in the U.S. in the 1950s.

However, a considerable body of Feminist inspired research has shown that the idealised image of the cereal packet family is something of a myth: firstly, once we factor in the extent of female dissatisfaction in traditional relationships, the rates of domestic abuse, and the number of empty shell marriages, the reality is not as ideal as it appears in the media, and secondly, even the 1950s there were a range of different family types in society, but these have been under-represented in the media.

As early as 1978 (the year before Margaret Thatcher was elected to power) Robert and Rhona Rapoport (1982) drew attention to the fact that that only 20% of families in Britain consisted of married couples with children in which there was a single breadwinner, and thus argued that the cereal packet family was a myth.

In 1989 the Rapoports argued that increasing family diversity was a global trend, a view supported by a study of family life in Europe which found that increasing divorce, decreasing marriage and an increase in household diversity were a Europe-wide phenomenon.

In 202 it is even harder to maintain the idea that the nuclear family is ‘normal’, let alone ‘ideal’, because It is clear that we live in an increasingly diverse society, and families and households are more diverse today than in any other period of British History.

The table below shows how family diversity has increased in the UK between 1961 and 2010. Unfortunately this is the most recent time the Office for National Statistics displayed the long-term 50 year trend, more recent stats only show the 10 year trend:

family diversity UK.png

Unfortunately, in A level Sociology it is simply not good enough to be able to identify the fact that the number of single person households and single parent families are increasing at the expense of ‘nuclear family’ households, you need to be much more analytical – In other words you need to be able to discuss diversification in much more depth.

The Rapoport’s Five Types of Family Diversity

The Rapoports (1982) identified five distinct elements of family diversity in the UK. Read the definitions of the different types of diversity and complete the table below.

Organisational diversity

Organisational diversity refers to variations in family structure, household type, and differences in the division of labour within the home. For example, there are differences between conventional families, one parent families and dual-worker families, in which both partners work. Also included within this type of diversity are reconstituted families, which are the result of divorce and re-partnering or remarriage and can take on a number of different organisational forms.

Cultural Diversity

The Rapoports also identified significant variations by ethnicity – In the case of South Asian families, both Hindu and Muslim, there was a tendency for the families to be more traditional and patriarchal, and extended families were also more likely. They also found that that African Caribbean households were much more likely to matrifocal (or centred around the mother rather than the father), a fact reflected in the much higher rates of single parent families amongst African Caribbean households.

Class Diversity

The Rapoports also found differences between working class and middle class families in terms of how children were socialised (middle class families are much more pro-school for example) and in terms of support-networks – Working class families were more likely to be embedded within a modified extended family network (having aunts/ uncles/ grandparents living nearby, but not in the same house) whereas middle class families were much more likely to be isolated, reflecting the increased geographical mobility of wealthier families.

The above differences existed between working class and the middle class families in the 1950s, but if anything had lessened by the 1980s. However, by that time The New Right was arguing that the Welfare State had given rise to a new class – The Underclass, with more families being long term unemployed and higher numbers of lone parents on benefits.

Life course Diversity

There are also differences which result from the stage of the life cycle of the family. Newly married couples without children, for example, have a different family life to those whose children have achieved adult status. One point to try and keep in mind here is that individuals today go through more stages of the life-course than they would have done in the 1950s.

Cohort Diversity

A cohort of individuals refers to those born in the same year (or band of years). Such individuals may well have a shared experience of historical events which could have influenced their family life. For example, couples entering into marriage in the 1950s would have had an expectation that marriage was for life and traditional gender roles were the norm, but by the 1980s, all of this had changed.

Trends in Family Diversity since the 1980s: More Diverse?

The Rapoports go some way towards conceptualising increasing family diversity, but in reality diversity trends are messier than this, and families and households are now hugely more diverse since the 1980s:

slide summarising increasing family and household diversity in the UK since the 1980s.

The two sociologists below believe that the Rapoport’s system of classification doesn’t accurately describe the diversity of modern relationships and family life. Allan and Crow and Beck-Gernsheim argue that increasing individualisation (more individual choice) has led to even more diverse families since the 1980s

Allan and Crow (2001): Continuing Diversification

‘In an important sense there is no such thing as ‘the family’. There are many different families; many different family relationships; and consequently many different family forms. Each family develops and changes over time as its personnel develop and change’ (Allan and Crow 2001)

Graham Allan and Graham Crow (2001) commented on a continuing trend towards the diversification of family types. They argue there is now ”far greater diversity in people’s domestic arrangements’ so that there is no longer a clear ‘family cycle’ through which most people pass.” That is, most people no longer pass through a routine series of stages in family life whereby they leave home, get married, move in with their spouse and have children who in turn leave home themselves. Instead, each individual follows a more unpredictable family course, complicated by cohabitation, divorce, remarriage, periods of living alone and so on.

This diversity is based on increased choice. Allan and Crow say that individuals and families are now more able to exercise choice and personal volition over domestic and familial arrangements: their options are no longer constrained by convention or economic need.

Allan and Crow identify the following demographic changes as contributing to increased family diversity:

  1. The divorce rate has risen. This has affected most countries in the Western world, not just Britain.
  2. Lone parent households have increased in number. This is partly due to increased divorce, but also because pregnancy is no longer automatically seen as requiring legitimation through marriage.
  3. Cohabitation outside marriage is increasingly common. In the early 1960s only 1/20 women lived with her husband before marriage, now 1/2 do.
  4. Marriage rates have declined. This is partly because people are marrying later, but lifetime marriage rates also appear to have declined.
  5. A big increase in the number of step families also appears to have increased family diversity.

Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim: Individualisation, Diversity and Lifestyle Choice

‘It is no longer possible to pronounce in some binding way what family, marriage, parenthood, sexuality, or love mean, what they should or could be; rather these vary in substance, norms and morality from individual to individual and from relationship to relationship.’ (Beck-Gernsheim 2002)

Beck-Gernsheim takes the idea of diversification even further than Allan and Crow. She argues that relationships and family life are so diverse that there are no longer any clear norms about what a modern relationship should consist of, let alone what a modern family should look like. Two pieces of evidence she cites for this are as follows:

In terms of relationships, Beck-Gernsheim points out that people today call their relationships different things – there are fewer ‘married’ couples and more ‘partners’ or just ‘couples’ – in the past we had an idea of what marriage meant, today it less clear what being part of a ‘couple’ or ‘living with  a ‘partner’ actually means. She also points out being ‘coupled up’ doesn’t even necessarily involve living together, as the increasing amount of ‘Living Apart Together’ (LAT) relationships testifies to.

Where families are concerned, Beck argues that the increase in divorce and higher rates of breakdown amongst cohabitating families has resulted in the rise of the ‘patchwork family’ in which adults go through life with a series of different partners, which greatly adds to the complexity of family life (as in Judith Stacy’s Divorce Extended Family). In such family settings, one person may regard particular family members as forming part of their family, while other members living in the same household may define their family as consisting of different people. For example, children may or may not regard half-brothers and step-sisters as a part of their family, they may lose contact with one parent after divorce, and yet retain contact with all grandparents.

Interestingly, Beck-Gernsheim argues that modern reproductive technologies are changing our ideas about family life altogether – children of donor families effectively have three parents, for example, while women can choose to freeze their eggs in their 30s, allowing them to have children in their 40s or 50s once they are more financially secure – leading to more ‘single parents by choice’.

According to Beck-Gernsheim, increasing individualisation (increasing amounts of individual choice) has resulted in such an array of relationships and family-forms that it is impossible to define what the family is or should be any more, and this also makes a return to the norm of the traditional nuclear family very unlikely.

Signposting and related posts

This material is mainly relevant to the families and households topic, usually taught as part of the first year of A-level sociology.

A good next post to read would be ‘explaining increasing family diversity in the U.K.’

Sources used

Haralambos and Holborne: Sociology Themes and Perspectives

Robb Webb: First Year A Level Sociology text book.

(1) Image for the Cereal Packet Family.

How have families and households become more diverse?

Brief revision notes on family diversity for A-level sociology students studying families and households.

slide showing Increasing family diversity in the UK.
Text Version of the above:

In the 1950s the ‘traditional nuclear family’ was much more common. Since then, the nuclear family has declined and other family and household types increased:

The ‘main types’ of family which have ‘replaced’ the nuclear family:

  • Reconstituted families
  • Divorce-extended families
  • Single parent families
  • Single person households
  • LAT relationships
  • Multigenerational households
  • The modified extended family
  • Shared households/ families of choice

Other forms of increasing family diversity

  • There are more cohabiting rather than married couples
  • There is more cultural (‘ethnic’) diversity
  • There are more openly same-sex couples and families
  • There is greater ‘organisational diversity’: of gender roles
  • There is greater ‘life-course diversity’
  • More adults are continuing to live with their parents

To my mind these ‘cut across’ those above: for example within many of the above categories, there is also cultural variation by ethnicity and sexuality, and the domestic division of labor. 

Signposting and related posts

What is the Family?

Functionalist sociologists tended to define the family as consisting of two parents in a committed relationship living together with their children. Postmodern and other sociologists have much broader definitions.

Sociologists do not agree on one standard definition of ‘the family’.

Functionalist sociologists traditionally used narrow definitions of the family, in which the family unit had to consist of a “man and a woman in a committed sexual relationship living together with their children“.

More contemporary Postmodern sociologists prefer much broader definitions of the family which extend the concept to include anyone an individual thinks of as being ‘part of the family’, such as friends or even pets.

From a postmodern perspective there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ definition of the family, but you do need to know how different sociologists define the family to really understand their perspective on the family, and to be able to evaluate the different perspectives.

The rest of this introductory post explores how the concept of ‘the family’ has been used by different sociologists, and aims to get you thinking about what the family is.

It has been written as an introduction the Families and Households module for A-level sociology, AQA focus.

defining the family mind map

The Functionalist definition of the family

Functionalist Sociologist George Peter Murdock used the following definition of the family as a starting point in his classic cross national study of families in more than 250 societies.

A social group characterised by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults’ (Murdock, 1949).

picture of the family from 'family guy'

Today, many Sociologists criticise the classic functionalist definition of the family as being too narrow because (both today and historically) too many groups of people who regard themselves as a family would not be included in this definition, such as reconstituted or step-families and same sex families.

A broader definition is provided by The Oxford English Dictionary which defines ‘the family’ as ‘a group consisting of one or two parents and their children’. (1)

The above definition includes step-families, single parent families and doesn’t even mention sex or sexual orientation of the parents, so includes same-sex families too.

Families and Households

We often think of families as living in one household, however the Oxford definition above says nothing at all about households, so in the above definition it’s feasible that a family spans multiple households, which, from the perspective of families themselves is quite normal.

For example, a couple in their 70s with one adult daughter who have moved out and is living on her own would probably all regard themselves as one family.

Similarly with families and households across the generations: grandparents are usually regarded as part of the broader or extended family, for example, and if grandparents and then parents each have two children, from the perspective of the older generation their family will extend across several households.

The problem with accepting these subjective definitions is that we quickly lose track of how many families there are, especially when we factor in divorce and step-families, the concept of family starts to become very complex, hence why for statistical purposes it might be easier to define the family at a household level, which is what the ONS does in its annual research.

The Office for National Statistics (2) defines a family as:

“A married, civil-partnered or cohabiting couple with or without children, or a lone parent with at least one child, who lives at the same address; children may be dependent or non-dependent.”

One advantage of the above is that we have an objective definition of what counts as a family and so we we can compare the number of family-households over time, which is one of the aims of the ONS.

However a weakness is that it limits the definition of the family so that it is something different to subject definitions. For example, in the above definition the couple in their 70s with one childless daughter who has moved out to live alone isn’t a family.

Households are broader than families

A household is simply a group of people (or single person) who share a residence in common and share such things as meals, bills, facilities or chores, or one person living alone.

The main household types in the UK include:

  • family households (as defined above)
  • couple households
  • single person households
  • mutli-family households
  • Shared households (such as student households).

Different types of family

One way around the problem of defining a family is to distinguish carefully between different ‘family arrangements’ when we discuss them. It is also generally good practice to define your concepts tightly in the early stages of conducting research, or when writing essays on the concept.

There is nothing wrong with limiting your research or analysis to just one specific type of family, you just need to make sure you are clear about limiting your discussion. (It’s often necessary to focus more tightly just for the sake of time!)

Some of the most common family types in modern Britain include.

The Nuclear Family – two parents with biological children living in one household.

The reconstituted family – two partners living in one household sharing parental duties for one or more children, but only one of them is the biological parent.

The single parent family – one adult with one or more children living in one household

The extended family – where relatives such as uncles/ aunts or grandparents reside permanently in the same household as those making up the nuclear family.

Postmodern definitions of the family

Because of the diversity within family life in contemporary Britain, post-modern thinkers suggest that it is better to use a broader definition of ‘the family’, which includes a very broad range of family types – one suggested definition of the family is ‘a group of people who are related by either blood or marriage/ similar form of committed relationship’.

The Personal Life Perspective‘s definition of the family is inspired by postmodernism, arguing that we should accept the unique definition of the family as each individual sees it which may mean we have different definitions of what the family is even within the same family household.

For example a step-father may view his family as the current family he is living with and his ex-wife’s family, but his step-daughter who is living with him may not regard his ‘other family’ as part of her family, and she may regard her pony as part of her family, but her dad may not.

From the Personal Life Perspective we will end up including friends, pets and dead relatives as part of some people’s families.

The strength of the above is that we get a full picture of the complexity of people’s understandings of the family, but it doesn’t leave us much possibility of doing anything other than describe this complexity.

Case study: the Rainbow Family of Light

Have a look at the case study below, do you think this group of people is a ‘family’?

definition family

The Rainbow Family was created out of the Vortex gathering in Oregon from August 28 to September 3, 1970. Inspired in large part by the first Woodstock Festival.

Those who attend Rainbow Gatherings usually share an interest in intentional communities, ecology and new age spirituality. Attendees refer to one another as “brother”, “sister”, or the gender neutral term, “sibling.” Attendance is open to all interested parties and decisions are reached through group meetings leading to some form of group consensus.

The organisation is a loose, international affiliation of individuals who have a stated goal of trying to achieve peace and love on earth. There are no official leaders or structure, no official spokespersons, and no formalised membership. Strictly speaking, the only goals are set by each individual, as no individual can claim to represent all Rainbows in word or deed.

Rainbow Family video

Apparently all is not well with the Rainbow family at the moment:

Question: is the family rainbow of light a family?

Think carefully about this – if you do then it means that practically any group of friends with close emotional ties should be called a family, but is this really what me mean when we use the term ‘family’? Or should sociologists limit themselves to studying families in the more traditional sense of the word?

If you want to explain why you voted in more depth, drop in a comment at the end!

Defining the family… why it matters…

You can only really get your head around perspectives on the family if you understand how different perspectives define the family differently!

Ultimately, how you define the family will determine how you conclude any essay within the families and households module!


(1) The Oxford English Dictionary definition of the family.

(2) Office for National Statistics: Families and Households in the UK 2022.

Families and Households in the UK – Social Trends

married family households are decreasing, cohabiting family, lone parent family and single parent family households are all increasing.

This post summaries some of the changing trends (and continuities) in family and household structure in the UK, using data from the Office for National Statistics which collects a range of data annually on families and households in the UK.

The Office for National Statistics Families and Households Hub Page is an obvious starting point for exploring this issue . Some of the headline stats include the following:

Families in the UK in 2022…

  • There were 19.4 million families in the UK in 2022.
  • The most common family type in the UK 2022 was the married couple family, making up 65% of all families (down from 67% in 2012).
  • Cohabiting couple families made up 19% of all families, up from 16% in 2012.
  • There were 2.9 million lone parent families in 2022, representing 15% of all families.
  • 43% of families had no children living with them and 42% of families had at least one dependent child.
  • Only 15% of families had only non-dependent children living with them.

Households in the UK in 2022…

percentages of household by household type UK 2019, pie chart.

The breakdown of family and non-family households in the UK in 2022 was as follows…

  • There were 28.2 million households in the UK in 2022, an increase of 1.6 million since 2012.
  • 18.8 million (57%) of households were one family households, either with or without children living in them. Approximately half of these had children living in, the other half were ’empty nest’ households.
  • (10% of households were lone parent family households (84% of which were lone-mother households. NB this 10% is included in the 57% in the first bullet point above!).
  • 8.5 million households (30%) were single person households, up from 29% in 2012 and representing 13% of the population in 2022.
  • 3% of households were occupied by unrelated adults living together
  • 1% of households were multi family, which includes multigenerational.
  • The average household had 2.36 people living in it in 2022, similar to 2012.

Changes to families and households 2012-2022

I’ve used the 2022 statistics where I can to summarise trends, but in some cases below I’ve had to go back to the 2018 analysis because that’s the last time the ONS focussed on changes over time using the particular graphics I wanted. NB the trend between 2018 and 2022 probably hasn’t changed anyway, so no worries!

(With any luck I’ll have the visualisation skills to update this with the 2022 data soon enough anyway!)

Changes to Family Households

  • There has been a continued decrease in married couple families, from 67% of families in 2012 to 65.2% of families in 2022.
  • Opposite-sex cohabiting families have seen the most signficant growth, up from 15.4% to almost 19% of all families today.
  • The number of lone parent families has decreased slightly in the last ten years to 15% of all families in 2022.
  • Same-sex cohabiting and same-sex civil partner families have both increased and together make up 1.2% of all families in 2022, up from 0.8% of all families in 2012
  • This means same-sex families have had the fastest growth rate over the past decade but from a very small base.
bar chart showing changes to family types UK 2012-2022.

Marriage and Cohabitation Trends 

The chart below clearly shows the long term increase in cohabitating families between 1996 to 2018, and when combined with stats above, from 1996 to 2022.

In 1996 there were only 2 million cohabiting families, in 2022 there were 3.7 million.

The number of married families remained stable between 1996 and 2018, but have declined quite sharply in the last four years to 2022.

Family Size in the UK

The one child family is the most common type of family in the UK in 2022.

  • 44% of families are one child, around 3.6 million families
  • 41% are two children families, around 3.4 million families
  • 15% are three children families, around 1.2 million families.
pie chart showing family sizes in the UK in 2022.

Family size appears to have remained pretty stable over the past 15 years (1)

Households Size in the UK

The average household size in the UK is 2.4, but the infographic below taken from the 2021 UK Census (2) shows how this breaks down more specifically. The dots are local authority areas, so the national average is in the middle of each cluster.

  • 30% of households have one person in
  • 35% have two people in
  • 17% have three people in
  • 14% have three people in
  • 5% have five people in.

The above are estimates based on looking at what’s below!

Multi Family Households 

There were approximately 280 000 multi family households in the UK in 2022, which is down from the peak of just over 300 000 in 2014, but a significant long term increase since 1996 when there were only 180 000 such households…

Bar chart showing trends in multi family households UK

Increase in People Living Alone

There has been a slow and steady increase in the overall numbers of people living alone, but this varies a lot by age – generally the number of older people living alone has increased, the number of younger people living alone has decreased.

Signposting and related posts.

This is a key topic in the families and households module, usually taught in the first year of A-level sociology.

An obvious next post to read would be ‘explaining the increase in family diversity‘.

To return to the homepage –


(1) Family size in the UK.

(2) UK Census: Household and Resident Characteristics 2021.

Sociological Perspectives on Single Person Households

people increasingly choose to live alone because of increased wealth, urbanisation, improved communications and living longer

Why are increasing numbers of people all over the world living alone?

People increasingly choose to live alone because of:

  1. Increasing wealth: people in wealthier countries are more likely to choose to live alone.
  2. Improved communications: makes it easier for solo-livers to keep in contact with friends and family while living alone.
  3. Mass urbanisation: higher density populations = easier to connect with other people.
  4. Increased longevity: following a relationship ending or one partner dying, there is less desire to pair-up again!

According to a recent book by Eric Klinenberg (2013) Explaining the Rise of Solo Living (1), this is a global phenomenon and mainly reflects the increasing degree of individual choice that comes with increasing wealth.

Global trends in single person households

The percentage of one person households has increased in many countries since the 1960s and since the year 2000, although there is a lot of variation by country.

In America the number of single person households has doubled since. the1960s, with 28% of households having only one person in them in 2018.

The countries with the highest levels of people living on their own are in Northern Europe. In Germany, for example, more than 40% of households. are single person households. (2)

Single Person Households in the UK

In 2022, 30% of households in the UK were single person households, this is a very slight increase since 2012.

bar chart showing percentage of one person and family households UK 2022.

Living alone: younger men and older women

There has been a change in the proportion of men and women living alone by age over the last decade. In 2022 the relative percentages are as follows:

Percentages of single person households by age, 2022 U.K.

A Summary of Going Solo by Klinenberg

Going Solo Klinenberg cover

Klinenberg argues that the rise of solo living is an extremely important social trend which presents a fundamental challenge to the centrality of the family to modern society. In the USA, the average adult will now spend more of their life unmarried than married, and single person households are one of the most common types of household. We have entered a period in social history where, for the first time, single people make up a significant proportion of the population.

Eric Klinenberg spent seven years interviewing 300 single Americans who lived alone, and the general picture he got was that these people were exactly where they wanted to be – living on their own was not a transitory phase, it was a genuine life choice. On the whole, living alone is seen as a mark of social distinction, living as part of a couple is for losers.

While single by choice is very much on the up among younger people who have never settled down into a long term cohabiting relationships and have no intention of doing so, it is also the norm among older people who have come out of relationships.

Where older people living alone are concerned, and these are mostly women, they are not all chasing the dwindling population of men in their age group (given the higher life expectancy for women). Most of them are in fact wary of getting involved in relationships because doing so will probably mean becoming someone’s carer (again), and similarly they are skeptical about moving back in with their children (and possibly their grandchildren too) because of fear that they will become an unpaid domestic and child-sitting slave.

NB, as a counter to the above, not all singles are happy about it, however. One such group consists of mainly men on low wages who are unmarriageable and live in ‘single room occupancy facilities’ often suffering from various addictions and who practice ‘defensive individualism’ in order to cope with their bleak situation.

Why are more people living alone?

So how do we account for this increasing in single person households?

Klinenberg suggests four reasons…

  1. The increased wealth generated by economic growth and the social security provided by the modern welfare state – the basic thesis is that the rise of single living is basically just a reflection of increasing wealth. When we can afford to live alone, more of us choose to do so. We especially see this where Scandinavia is concerned, and nearly half of the adult population live alone.
  2. The communications revolution – For those who want to live alone, the internet allows us to stay connected. An important part of his thesis is that just because we are increasingly living alone, this doesn’t mean that we are becoming a ‘society of loners’.
  3. Mass urbanization – Klinenberg suggests that Subcultures thrive in cities, which tend to attract nonconformists who are able to find others like themselves in the dense variety of urban life. In short, it’s easier to connect with other singles where people live closer together.
  4. Increased longevity – because people are living longer than ever and because women often outlive their spouses by decades rather than years — aging alone has become an increasingly common experience.

Discussion questions 

In the video below, Wayne discusses his motivations for ‘going solo’ with his friend Archie, and together they explore some of the reasons for the increase in single person households.

  • To what extent do you think Kleinberg’s findings apply to the increase in Solo Living in the UK?
  • What other ‘deeper’ Sociological reasons might explain the increase in Solo Living?
  • Do you agree that the rise of Solo Living challenges the centrality of the family in modern society?

Historical data (on single person households)

single people UK pie chart

Most people who live alone are 65+ and increasing numbers of those aged 45-60 are living alone. However, the numbers of younger people living alone are declining (so Wayne in the video above is actually wrong when he says solo living is on the increase among younger people!)

solo living UK
Signposting and Related Posts

This material is mainly relevant to the families and households module, usually taught in the first year of A-level sociology.

Explaining the reasons for the increase in family diversity (explores further reasons for the increase in single person households and other ‘family’ types).

(1) Klinenberg’s Book on Amazon.

(2) Our World in Data: People Living Alone.

(3) ONS (2021, see also 2022) Families and Households in the UK.