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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 April 2007, 16:30 GMT 17:30 UK
Big change to 'Janet and John' story
By Mark Easton
BBC home editor

Once upon time it was Janet and John - mum and dad, married with a couple of kids. Today the story is very different.

Couple arguing (generic
The report highlights a rise in relationship breakdowns

The latest annual statistical review of British society finds that a quarter of children now live with just one parent - the vast majority are single mothers.

Few young people set out in life with the aim of bringing up a family on their own and yet, increasingly, that is how it ends up.

The number of lone mums bringing up three or more children has trebled since the 1970s.

How has this come about?

The implication of the statistics is that Britain is going through an epidemic of relationship breakdown.

Marriage low

We now have the lowest number of marriages since records began.

In 1972 there were 480,000. The latest annual figure is 284,000.

Divorce remains historically high at about 160,000 a year which means that we are getting close to being able to say that for every three marriages there are two divorces.

It's unfair to blame single parents for the ills of society
Lindsay Wall, Bristol

Over the last 20 years, the proportion of people living together but unmarried has doubled from 12% to 24% of adults, a change that has seen a significant increase in the number of children born outside marriage

Back in 1980 just 12% of all births in the UK were to unmarried parents. Now it 43% and rising.

In some parts of Britain, most children are born outside marriage - 52% of babies in Wales, 55% in the north east of England.

These figures are among the highest in Europe - for instance, in Cyprus just 3% of children are born outside wedlock.

Whether this matters is a matter for debate, but the evidence is that cohabiting couples are even less likely to stay together than married couples.

The consequence is that more children end up living with just one parent or, as is the case in 10% of families, with a step-parent.

Neighbourhood disputes

Youngsters are tending to flee the nest later - around six out of 10 men are still living with their parents when they are 24 - partly a consequence of staying in education longer but also because of the difficulty in finding somewhere they can afford to live.

When they do finally set off on their own, larger numbers of young people end up living alone.

Run down area (generic)
Fears about anti-social behaviour concern many

Back in 1971 three million people were on their own. Today it is seven million - 29% of all households have just one person in them.

The numbers of men and women aged 25 to 44 who live alone has doubled in the past 20 years.

Among middle-aged men there has also been a doubling, one in six males in that age-group live by themselves, in part a consequence of relationship breakdown.

The increase among women is much less steep. They are usually the ones who look after the children.

The consequence is communities with higher levels of isolation and lower levels of trust.

Back in 1958, 60% of people thought most people were trustworthy.

Today it is 29% and still going down - a sign that the glue which holds our society together is weakening.

The loss of what is called "social capital" may explain an almost five-fold increase in complaints about neighbours in the past 20 years.

Arguments over noise are often put down to "selfish attitudes" or "incompatible lifestyles with neighbours", further evidence of atomisation.

Fears about crime and anti-social behaviour are another indicator.

What is to blame?

There are many theories - liberal attitudes, Thatcherism, consumerism, secularisation and more.

Britain is not alone in seeing family breakdown and social isolation but it is as acute here as almost anywhere and arguments over the causes and the consequences have made this increasingly political territory.

The economics of social trends
11 Apr 07 |  Business
Why do men live at home longer?
11 Apr 07 |  Magazine

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