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Marriage falls out of favour in Europe

Guardian Reporters

Experts blame the economic crisis and changing social attitudes for the decline in weddings among young Europeans, as well as the falling birth rate.

The number of weddings in numerous European countries has fallen dramatically as the age of those that do wed rises. (Flickr)

Marriage rates have fallen dramatically in most major European countries over the past decade as austerity, generational crisis and apathy towards the institution deter record numbers of young people from tying the knot.

The number of weddings has fallen to historical lows in France and Spain and has tumbled in other Catholic countries such as Italy, Ireland, Poland and Portugal, according to national and European data. But people have also fallen out of love with marriage in countries as varied as Greece, Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands and Britain. Only in parts of Scandinavia, the Baltic republics and Germany is the institution retaining its allure.

In Italy there were fewer than 200 000 marriages last year, the lowest number since World War I. Numbers have fallen by 24% in the past decade and halved since 1965. Preliminary data indicated that the rate of marriages in Italy last year was 3.3 per 1 000 citizens compared with 4.6 in 2003, according to the Italian National Institute of Statistics (Istat). This figure was “the lowest in modern history”, it said.

“The fall has been very significant and beyond all expectation,” said Istat chairperson Antonio Golini. “There are cultural and economic causes for this phenomenon,” he said. “The cultural causes are that marriage has become less important from a religious and civil point of view, because many young people live together without marrying.

“But there are also economic causes because marriage means having a celebration and often this celebration is big and costs a lot. So in a time of crisis like this, people live together in an [unmarried] cohabitation.”

Still in the nest
Economic crisis not only means people wanting to save money on a party. A study this year found that almost half of people aged 18-30 in Europe still live with their parents, prevented from flying the nest by a lack of jobs, considerable debt and rising property costs. Experts say this perfect storm of factors is also hitting birth rates.

“The lack of stable jobs and absence of credit have become disincentives to forming a family,” said Teresa Castro-Martin, professor of research in the department of population studies at the CSIC, a government research institute in Spain. The average age of newlyweds in Spain is now 37.2 years for men – almost 10 years higher than it was in the 1980s. “Marriage has traditionally been a rite of passage to adulthood but it has lost its centrality,” said Castro-Martin.

In France the downward trend in marriages has been partly affected by the rise of civil partnership contracts. In 2013, for every three marriages there were two civil partnerships, known as Pacs (Pacte Civil de Solidarité), which were introduced in 1999.

Magali Mazuy, a demographer at the French National Institute of Demographic Studies, said the dip in the number of marriages could in part be attributed to the popularity of Pacs, but noted that “only a fraction of pacsés [people with Pacs] subsequently get married”. She saw marriage as “a hard core of people attached to traditional values, or who choose it for what it symbolises: the notion of couplehood, commitment and faithfulness”. But she also said that marriage was seen as “protecting” the spouse or children in case of death, whereas Pacs provided less protection.

Changing lifestyles
Declining marriage rates in Greece – though exacerbated by the country’s debt crisis – have been a fact of life for the past decade, sociologists say. Changing lifestyles and behavioural patterns as much as economic pressures have been at the root of the fall. More than 60% of Greek youth are unemployed – the highest in the EU.

“The tendency started way before the crisis struck and is as much about changing values as the financial difficulties that young people now face,” said Aliki Mouriki from the National Centre for Social Research. “As so many have difficult access to a decently paid job without long hours of unpaid overtime, they’re not keen to commit themselves to the obligations of wedlock and do so, if and when, pregnancy occurs.”

The realisation that they won’t be able to provide – combined with a reluctance to give up what Mouriki calls “their bohemian, uncommitted way of life” – has meant that many young Greeks are simply postponing exchanging vows.

The decline is not limited to “old Europe”. Last year the number of weddings in Poland fell to the lowest level since 1945 – the flip side of a society in which 43% of 25 to 34-year-olds still live with their parents.

Witold Wrzesien, a sociologist, said young Poles today wanted “independence without responsibility. They want to be treated with the respect accorded to adults while staying under the safety of their parents’ wings and not taking any risks. In short, they want to eat their cake and have it.”

But the reasons for the drop in Polish marriage figures are not solely economic. The number of children now born out of wedlock in Poland is at its highest level of 21%, suggesting significant shifts in social attitudes in a country that is 95% Roman Catholic and has till now been considered one of Europe’s most traditional societies. – © Guardian News & Media

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