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Last Updated: Monday, 5 November 2007, 08:18 GMT
How much is family life changing?
By Mark Easton
BBC home editor

A BBC poll suggests that three-quarters of Britons are optimistic about their family's future - a much higher figure than when people were asked more than 40 years ago.

Family life is changing in the UK - but not in the way we might expect.

Child and father in a park
Most people described family life as fairly or very happy

When the BBC commissioned its survey of families in Britain, I think our expectation was that we would be measuring the extent to which people's closest relationships were suffering as a result of the decline in traditional family structures.

When the results came in, we had a surprise.

Compared with historical polling, people are more optimistic about their family's future, more people describe their family as close and they are more likely to say their parents did their best for them.

Despite all the changes, we remain remarkable happy with family life - 93% of us describing it as fairly or very happy.

The results don't seem to make sense when we look at academic data which links looser family structures to poorer health and happiness.

Marriage levels in Britain are at an all-time low. For every three weddings there are now two divorces - the highest rate in Europe.

Cohabitation has risen 64% in a decade, with almost half of children now born outside wedlock.

Lone parenting

We also have by far the highest proportion of lone parents in Europe - a quarter of children now live with a single mum.

Piechart showing whether people are happiest with family, friends, colleagues or alone

Academic studies consistently find that such children do less well at school and at work than the offspring of cohabiting or married couples.

So how does one explain this apparent contradiction?

It may be that our expectations of family life have changed, that we are content with arrangements that would have dissatisfied our forebears.

Perhaps our optimism reflects contemporary affluence and stability rather than a confidence in the strength of family structures.

After all, increasing numbers of people - now seven out of 10 - believe that family life is generally becoming less successful, even if they are optimistic about their own.

Technology's role

Another possible factor is technology. Most people have access to a car or good public transport making increased distance between family members less problematic than it would have been 50 years ago.

The ubiquitous nature of telephony - particularly mobile phones - has made family contact easier, although the internet has not yet become a major method of family communication.

Certainly children should be in proper families

In the poll less than a third of internet users said they used it to contact their family every week and only 8% made contact every day.

Perhaps the most intriguing explanation for the up-beat view of family life discovered in this poll is that it reflects the increasing importance we place upon it.

The global fascination with genealogy and family trees may stem from the same psychological need to understand who we are in a world where identities can easily become blurred.

Despite the changing nature of family life, perhaps we value those ties more than ever.

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