Marriage, Sex, and Family in Western Europe

The 20th Century has witnessed remarkable changes in family structures and dynamics in Western Europe and North America: smaller household sizes, a further shift from extended to nuclear families, a decrease in nuptiality and an increase in separation or divorce, the appearance of new forms of unions such as unmarried cohabitation and living-apart-together, changing gender and intergenerational relations, and, last but not least, a substantial decrease in fertility, often to below-replacement levels. Beginning in the 1960s a number of interrelated and mutually reinforcing economic, technological and cultural factors combined to accelerate and extend those changes in existing family features. These changes, and their demographic and social consequences, have raised considerable concern, if not panic, among some researchers and policy makers. This topic looks at recent trends in family structures and dynamics throughout the life course, discusses the context of those trends, and considers possible future developments in the new Millennium. Three major groups of family characteristics is distinguished: those pertaining to relational behaviour (partnership), to reproductive behaviour (parenthood) and to intergenerational behaviour, the latter mainly focused on the living conditions of older persons. Western Europe and North America experienced changes in their family structures and dynamics throughout the 20th Century. In the past two decades, some changes accelerated or resumed after a temporary slowdown, halt or temporary reversal. Notwithstanding some considerable variation among countries in levels and trends, the following general changes in family-related behaviour are observed.

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