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Posted 14 December 2011

Family structure in Ireland moving beyond the traditional model, study shows

One third of families in Ireland are outside the ‘traditional model’ of a married couple both of whom are in their first marriage, according to a new study.

By using statistical techniques never before applied to census data in Ireland, researchers from the ESRI (Economic and Social Research Institute) and UCD have created a detailed picture of families in Ireland from micro-data from Census 2006.

The findings from the study - Households and Family Structures in Ireland – funded by the Family Support Agency will have implications for a range of policies, including those in relation to working mothers, work-life balance, the new rights and obligations of cohabitants, and the use of population projections for planning.

"This report gives us a valuable insight into contemporary Irish family life,” said the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances FitzGerald TD who launched the report.

“Understanding the modern family is critical if we are to design and deliver quality services for families and children in Ireland, which is a priority for my Department. I commend the Family Support Agency, the ESRI and UCD for producing this detailed report."

The key findings from the study co-authored by Dr Pete Lunn, ESRI, and Professor Tony Fahey, Professor of Social Policy at the UCD School of Applied Social Science, University College Dublin are as follows:


  • One-in-three families in Ireland departs from the traditional model of a married couple both of whom are in their first marriage. One-in-four children under 21 years of age lives in a family that does not conform to this model.

  • Alternative family structures are dominated by never-married cohabiting couples and lone mothers (both never-married and divorced or separated). Together with first-time marriages, these four family types account for 92% of families.

  • Second relationships and step-families, though they exist in diverse forms, remain relatively rare in Ireland.

Who Partners Whom?:

  • In couples the man is on average 2.3 years older than the woman, although the gap has narrowed consistently over the past four to five decades. Partnerships are nevertheless considerably more likely to form when the man is older, even if by only a small amount.

  • Comparing older and younger couples ranging in mean age from 25 to 70 years, there has been little change in the extent to which couples tend to form among people with similar levels of education and similar occupations.

  • Yet among partners who differ in their educational and occupational levels, women are increasingly likely to have the advantage. The woman has higher educational qualifications than the man in 34% of couples of mean age 26-40 years, compared to just 18% where the opposite holds. Even more strikingly, in 42% of these younger couples the woman has the higher occupational classification, versus 28% where the man has.

  • Couples in which partners have different religious affiliations are more prevalent than couples in which partners have different nationalities or ethnicities.

  • In more than one quarter of young couples, those with a mean age of 30 years or less, at least one partner is of non-Irish nationality and/or non-white ethnicity.


  • Childless couples with a mean age of less than 45 years are more likely to cohabit than be married, while the vast majority who have children are married.

  • In one quarter of cohabiting couples at least one partner was previously married. The mean age of such couples is over 40 years, suggesting that it is not only the recent cohort of younger adults that is taking advantage of the acceptability of cohabitation.

  • The likelihood of cohabitation is linked to socio-economic status. Controlling for other background characteristics, including the presence of children, a couple in their thirties who both have third-level qualifications are less than half as likely to cohabit as a couple who both have lower second-level qualifications.

  • Cohabitation is more likely among couples that have different religious affiliation and much more likely among couples who have no religion.

  • The likelihood that a couple gets married increases sharply after the birth of a first child, regardless of whether the couple is fairly young, i.e. in their twenties, or older.

Children’s Family Circumstances:

  • Of the 1.15 million children, 75% live with two married parents, 18% with a lone parent and 6% with cohabiting parents.

  • The chance of living with two married parents increases steadily with the age of the child and is much higher where the parents have higher levels of educational attainment.

  • We estimate that 2.5% of children live in step-families (i.e. families containing at least one step-child) and 1.3% are step-children. These step-families have a similar socio-economic profile to non-step-families.

  • More than half of all step-families consist of a single step-child with one or more younger step-siblings, the oldest of whom is an average of eight years younger.

  • International comparisons show that Ireland has a low level of second relationships and remarriage relative to other developed nations, but a high rate of unmarried lone parenthood. Both may be connected to delaying couple formation, which improves the chances that couple relationships will last but results in more young single adults at risk of having a birth outside of a stable partnership.


  • The number of enumerated resident children who were born between 2003 and 2006 is lower than the number of births in Ireland during these years - a significant change from years prior to 2003. This suggests that families with very young infants switched from being net immigrants to net emigrants in this period.

  • Despite the sharply growing overall number of births, births to longer-term Irish residents fell in the ten years prior to 2006. This probably reflects a further delay in childbearing among Irish people rather than a desire for fewer children.
  • By the year 2000 the historical association between lower educational attainment and higher fertility had changed, such that women with high and low attainment were having fewer children than those in the middle of the educational range.

  • The father's level of educational attainment influences the decision to have children almost as much as the mother's, suggesting that delayed childbearing is driven by more than concerns about women's careers.

  • Couples who cohabit are less likely to decide to have a first child than couples who are married, especially if they have high educational attainment.

  • We include a more technical Appendix to the report that asks whether the true fertility rate in Ireland may have been substantially underestimated over recent decades by the most commonly used official measure - the Total Fertility Rate.

(This article was produced from material provided by the ESRI)


About the ESRI

The ESRI (Economic and Social Research Institute) is an independent research institute governed by a Council. The ESRI does not as an Institute take policy positions and the views expressed in ESRI publications are those of the authors. All ESRI reports are peer-reviewed prior to publication.

(Produced by UCD University Relations)


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