By 2011 most of the adult population will be unmarried and living alone.

The traditional family faces a minority role

By Philip Johnston, Home Affairs Editor

Daily Telegraph, 9jan99, p5

Fresh evidence of the traditional family's decline in Britain came yesterday with figures showing that within twelve years a majority of the adult population will be unmarried.

It would be the first time since census records began in 1801 that those who are cohabiting, divorced, widowed or have never married had outnumbered married adults.

Forecasts from the Government Actuary, whose statistics are used to guide policy on housing and social security, suggest that by 2011 the proportion of the adult population that is married will fall from about 55 per cent today to 48 per cent.

Although the number of people cohabiting is expected to rise, it is predicted that this will not make up for the decline in marriage. As a result, fewer people will live as couples in the first quarter of the next century.

Marriage rates among the under-thirties will continue the steep decline since the Seventies and the proportion of adults who have never married will rise from 32 per cent to 41 per cent for men and from 24 per cent to 33 per cent for women. Half of all men aged between 30 and 44 will have remained single by 2021. It is also estimated that the number of cohabiting couples - now about 1.5 million - will almost double over the next 25 years.

The figures are the latest in a succession of indicators that have confirmed the marked social changes that Britain has undergone in recent years. Divorce rates, births outside marriage and cohabitation have all shown marked increases to levels above anywhere else in Western Europe, although the same trends are apparent there.

Two in every five marriages now is expected to fail, the number of first time marriages is at its lowest level for a century and has halved in fewer than 30 years. Since 1986, there has been a 12 per cent fall in married couple families.

Chris Shaw, of the Actuary Department, said: "These are big changes. What we're projecting in terms of marriage in the future is largely a continuation of changes that have already occurred. We've seen such a big fall in marriage rates at young ages and this is the result.

The figures have profound social end economic consequences. Forecasts of the number of people likely to be living alone in the next century are being revised upwards, which means more houses will be needed to accommodate them.

Three years ago, the Government projected a need for an extra 4.4 million homes; next month, this figure is expected to be revised closer to five million.

On present trends, fewer than one in five households will comprise married couples with dependent children, and, with the age of first marriage rising, a much larger number of single men and women will want their own home. Almost 80 per cent of the demand for extra homes will come from the never-married, divorced and separated.

The growing number of divorces also has implications for the welfare system, since single women with children are increasingly forced onto benefits. Another consequence is the increasing "disengagement" of men from family life. More than half of men aged 30 to 34 will be living on their own by 2016.

Last year, the Government proposed a series of measures ostensibly to support family life but ministers were at pains to avoid preaching the benefits of a particular lifestyle. The Green Paper, however, did concede that "marriage is a strong foundation for stability".

Sociologists are divided over how, or if, ministers should respond to the trends. Some experts believe that politicians should not accept the trends away from marriage as inevitable and should frame policies - including the tax structure - to reverse them.

Others, however, maintain that fewer marriages and greater cohabitation are now facts of life and that the focus of policy should be on parenthood rather than marriage.

Lucy Sellick, of the marriage guidance group Relate, said that more couples were waiting until their thirties to marry, as Prince Edward and his fiancée Sophie Rhys-Jones have done. She said: "The recent announcement of the Royal engagement will do much to boost the image of marriage."