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The Iona Blog

Irish Times can’t decide whether family is changing or staying the same

Author: David Quinn
Date: 30th March 2012

The Irish Times can’t seem to get its lines straight on the state of family life in Ireland. On the one hand we get articles informing us that the family in Ireland is changing, that it is getting more diverse and we need to recognise this fact.

On the other hand, we have Carl O’Brien reassuring us in today’s paper that actually, it’s still traditional in that “the marital family still accounts for the vast majority – 70 percent – of all family units.”

In the same article he informs us: “We now know that many of the changes in Irish family life – cohabitation, getting married later in life – aren’t necessarily disrupting the ways of old. Instead, many are simply postponing the more traditional form of family until later in life.”

Carl has elsewhere described the married family as the “gold standard” for children, and he is right about that.

However, in that same article, about the family, he seems to contradict what he is saying in today’s article in that he says “society is continuing to change faster than it was ever imagined” and that the law needs to keep pace.

So which is it, is it changing fast, or not changing that much? And are the changes good (more family diversity), or bad (fewer children in the gold standard family)?

But Carl actually offers a rather middle class perspective on family life. The changes aren’t disrupting the traditional family in middle class areas anything like as much as they are in the most disadvantaged areas of our society.

In many of those areas, a clear majority of children are born outside marriage, many never know their fathers, and many couples never marry but move from one cohabiting relationship to another.

According to Census 2011, 28 percent of children now live outside the gold standard family unit. That accounts for 456,661 of all children in the country. That is a lot of children and in fact, 28pc is quite high by the standards of other OECD countries, especially the number being raised in single parent families.

But that figure of 28 percent isn’t evenly distributed. It is much lower in middle class areas and much higher in many disadvantaged areas.

It’s like unemployment. Unemployment in Ireland is currently over 14 percent of the workforce. But the percentage unemployed is higher in working class areas than in middle class areas.

Finally, if we are right to worry about 14 percent unemployment, then surely it’s time to start worrying about the fact that 28 percent of children are no longer being raised by their two married parents, especially when we take into account that this figure is much higher in some areas than in others.

Or are we never to ring the alarm bells on this matter?

P.S. Carl O'Brien has since been in contact to point out that his original article was about the 2006 census data and his latest article was about the 2011 data. The 2006 data showed big changes in family life and the 2011 data showed the trends had settled down and that is how the seemingly discrepant positions he seems to take in the two articles can be reconciled.

I can only say in response that our cohabitation rate and the number of kids being raised outside marriage have both stabilised at pretty high levels. Close to half a million kids being raised outside marriage is a lot of children. And while our marital breakdown rate remains low by Western standards, on average an additional 10,000 married people are splitting up each year.

But this blog is always open to Carl if he wishes to put his argument in his own way.

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