The Marriage Foundation has recently reported a reduction of 25% in the number of married families with children in the 'middle classes'. The trend, which started in the 1970s with lower income groups, has apparently now spread to wealthier demographic groups.

Why are there less middle class marriages now?

Why are there less middle class marriages now?

There will be numerous different reasons for this trend. For some it may no longer be seen as necessary or desirable, whilst for others, even if desired, it may be unachievable or unaffordable.

Since the 1970s, the number of women in work has grown steadily. Many women have made the deliberate choice to delay having children until they have climbed the career ladder and established themselves financially. Having personal financial stability means a woman may feel less in need of the financial support that a marriage could provide. Indeed, a successful woman may want to shield herself from the financial risk of divorce by remaining unmarried. Many divorced career-women would lament the fact that their multi-faceted contribution as breadwinner, mother, wife, 'chief cook and bottle-washer' received no more recognition than the contribution of a wife who did not work outside the home.

The stigma of having a child outside marriage is largely non-existent now - indeed it is on its way to becoming the norm. Women don't feel they have to wait for a child until they are married and the advances in fertility treatment mean that they don't need to. Mothers can seek child support from the father of their child even if they are not married and, in some cases that support can go further with the provision of a home, furnishings and other essentials. An unmarried mother isn't left to shoulder the entire burden alone as she may once have been required to do.

There may be other economic factors that deter marriage. With 95% mortgages a thing of the past, those 20-somethings lucky enough to have jobs have to save hard for a house deposit. With hefty student loans to repay at the same time as trying to afford a reasonable standard of living, it is easy to see why the added expense of a wedding must seem a bridge too far for many.

Buying a house has become increasingly aspirational with long term renting being the only alternative. Marriage has been a way of providing security, particularly to wives. If the couple don't own a property, that security (in terms of the value of the house) is not there to preserve. In a world where both parents are likely to have to work, renting provides a good deal of flexibility. If a relationship ends, disentangling the finances is a lot easier if there are no joint assets or debts. Those who have been through a divorce once may choose to avoid the risks of a second divorce for that very reason.

However, the choices made by adults to maintain this level of flexibility have a price. Long term outcomes for children tend to be more positive for children whose parents stay together. A couple who marry and have a child are more likely than not to stay together for life. A couple who don't marry are statistically likely to have separated by their child's 15th birthday. The increased risk of separation, and the very real impact this has on family life and most families' financial stability, do lead to poorer outcomes for children. The lifestyle choices of parents can, and do, have very real ramifications for their children.

By Nicola Harries, Partner, Stevens & Bolton LLP

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