Family Formation in Ireland. Trends, Data Needs and Implications

Family Formation in Ireland. Trends, Data Needs and Implications

Dr. Tony Fahey and Dr. Helen Russell

Mr. Dermot Ahern, T.D., Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs will launch a new report from the ESRI on Wednesday, 6 February, 2002. The report outlines trends in fertility rates, lone parenthood and household size in Ireland over recent years. It also points to areas where available information on family patterns is inadequate and needs to be expanded.

Key findings:

  • A surge in new family formation has occurred in Ireland since the onset of economic boom in 1994. Between 1994 and 2000, the number of first births increased by 29 per cent. The increase was such that the number of first births in 2000 was the highest on record.
  • Rising birth numbers are largely accounted for by increases in the number of women of child-bearing age. The fertility rate, which links the number of births to the number of women of child-bearing age, has remained relatively stable during the 1990s (at approximately 1.9 births per woman).
  • The stabilisation of Irish fertility rates in the 1990s is significant as it brought to a halt the steady decline in fertility rates which had been underway for the previous twenty years. Though the fertility levels at which this stabilisation has occurred are low by Irish historical standards, they are reasonably high by European standards. Ireland continues to have more-or-less the highest fertility rate in Europe. However, for the past decade Irish fertility rates have been below those of the USA and New Zealand. Both these countries have had a stronger fertility record in the 1990s than any country in Europe.
  • The share of births in Ireland occurring outside of marriage has risen from 5 per cent in 1980 to 32 per cent in 2000. Systematic information is lacking on the partnership circumstances of the parents of children born outside marriage. Patterns elsewhere, along with limited evidence for Ireland, would suggest that large proportions are in cohabiting unions, that many enter marriage after the birth of the child, and that solo parenthood may be relatively uncommon among them.
  • Following over 20 years of steady decline, the number of marriages increased from 1997 onwards, rising by 23 per cent between then and the year 2000.
  • About 12 per cent of children aged under 15 are in lone parent families. This represents almost a doubling of the extent of lone parent families since the early 1980s, though difficulties with the data mean that counts lone parenthood remain somewhat uncertain.
  • Marital breakdown and non-marital births are now the most common routes into lone parenthood. Widowhood accounts now accounts for something less than one in ten of lone parents, though since different data sources give somewhat different breakdowns of the marital status of lone parents, it is not possible to be precise on this issue. Little information is available on the role of the ‘absent’ parent in lone parent families, and this constitutes a major gap in the data on the subject.
  • The great majority of lone parents are women and these tend to have lower levels of education than married mothers in the same age group. Unmarried and separated lone mothers are more likely to participate in the labour market than married mothers with similar characteristics. This is due mainly to the high participation of lone mothers in jobs provided under the Community Employment programme.

While existing data give extensive information on certain aspects of family formation in Ireland, there are important gaps. Guidance for policy on family issues is hampered as a result. The study thus highlights the need for an expansion of data collection in this area in the future.

Members of the Press are invited to attend the Press Briefing in the Italian Room, Government Buildings, Merrion St., Dublin 2, on Wednesday, 6 February 2002, 10.00 am.