These changes have come together with a large and significant shift in people’s perceptions of the types of family structures that are possible, acceptable and desirable. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the rise of same-sex marriage.
Trends in the rate of divorces relative to the size of the population
In the chart here we show the crude divorce rate – the number of divorces per 1,000 people in the country.
When we zoom out and look at the large-scale picture at the global or regional level since the 1970s, we see an overall increase in divorce rates. The UN in its overview of global marriage patterns notes that there is a general upward trend: “at the world level, the proportion of adults aged 35-39 who are divorced or separated has doubled, passing from 2% in the 1970s to 4% in the 2000s.”
But, when we look more closely at the data we can also see that this misses two key insights: there are notable differences between countries; and it fails to capture the pattern of these changes in the period from the 1990s to today.
As we see in the chart, for many countries divorce rates increased markedly between the 1970s and 1990s. In the US, divorce rates more than doubled from 2.2 per 1,000 in 1960 to over 5 per 1,000 in the 1980s. In the UK, Norway and South Korea, divorce rates more than tripled. Since then divorce rates declined in many countries.
In the chart the US stands out as a bit of an outlier, with consistently higher divorce rates than most other countries, but also an earlier ‘peak’. South Korea had a much later ‘peak’, with divorce rates continuing to rise until the early 2000s. In other countries – such as Mexico and Turkey – divorces continue to rise. As the OECD Family Database notes, between 1995 and 2017 (or the nearest available estimate), divorce rates increased in 18 OECD countries, but fell in 12 others.
The pattern of rising divorce rates, followed by a plateau or fall in some countries (particularly richer countries) might be partially explained by the differences in divorce rates across cohorts, and the delay in marriage we see in younger couples today.
Economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers looked in detail at the changes and driving forces in marriage and divorce rates in the US. 14 They suggest that the changes we see in divorce rates may be partly reflective of the changes in expectations within marriages as women entered the workforce. Women who married before the large rise in female employment may have found themselves in marriages where expectations were no longer suited. Many people in the postwar years married someone who was probably a good match for the postwar culture, but ended up being the wrong partner after the times had changed. This may have been a driver behind the steep rise in divorces throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
In many countries there has been a large decline in marriages across cohorts
The increase in cohabitation is the result of the two changes that we discussed above: fewer people are choosing to marry and those people who do get married tend to do so when they are older, and often live with their partner before getting ple, 85% of people who get married cohabited first. 5
In 1989, Dene the first country to recognize a legal relationship for same-sex couples, establishing ‘registered partnerships’ granting those in same-sex relationships most of the rights given to married heterosexuals.
These changes have led to a broad transformation of family structures. In the last decades, many countries have seen an increase in cohabitation, and it is becoming more common for children to live with a single parent, or with parents who are not married.