Family Demography Essay

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Family demography is a subfield of demography that focuses on explaining the causes and consequences of population trends related to the family. These trends include changing gender relations within households; the formation, dissolution and reformation of romantic unions; fertility; and changes in household size and composition. Family demographers are made up of researchers from a wide range of disciplines, including sociology, economics, anthropology, family studies, psychology, and public health. These researchers rely on theoretical frameworks to interpret trends in the family, such as the life course theory, demographic transition theories, developmental idealism, and theories that take gender dynamics and cultural contexts into account.

Family demographers employ demographic strategies of analysis to study the family. They depend on the use of large-scale surveys that produce representative data of household and family members. They also tend to study rates of people experiencing an event, with the denominator being those ”at risk” of experiencing the event of interest (e.g., those ”at risk” of marriage includes those who are currently unmarried). It is important to pay attention to effects that are attributable to age, period, or cohort that might influence family trends. For example, fertility rates are higher during certain ages of the reproductive life span. Fertility may also change due to period effects, such as an economic recession. On the other hand, a characteristic intrinsic to a cohort, such as higher levels of education than preceding cohorts, may cause women to have later or fewer births.

Families have undergone enormous changes in the last century. In the USA and other western countries there has been a decline in marriage due to people marrying later, spending more time in cohabiting unions, and divorcing more often. Yet, the majority of people still intend to and do marry at some point in their lives. For those marrying in the USA, divorce became more common in the second half of the twentieth century, though divorce rates have plateaued since the 1980s. Still, the USA maintains one of the highest divorce rates in the world. In conjunction with this high divorce rate, there has been an increase in remarriage, resulting in a greater number of step and blended family homes. Similarly, there has been an increase in single-parent households, with most of these households being headed by women.

In addition to these changes in marital patterns, western countries have seen an increase in separation of childbearing and marriage. There has been a rise in nonmarital births, both as a result of a declining proportion of births to married couples as well as a rising proportion of births to nonmarried couples. Many of these nonmarital births occur within cohabiting unions, although having children in these kinds of unions is less common in the USA than in other western nations. The rise in cohabitation has sparked interest among family demographers, who often seek to understand the differences between cohabitors in the USA versus in other western countries. In other countries, cohabitation is more commonly treated as an alternative to marriage and the line between marriage and cohabitation is blurred. In the USA, on the other hand, cohabitors are distinct from married couples in many ways including education, fertility, and pooling of income.

The study of fertility is closely linked to family demography, as reproduction is central to the family. Fertility rates are linked to family and household size and have implications for intergenerational relationships. The global fertility decline has been an ongoing focus of family demographers. In non-western countries, fertility decline was considered desirable to prevent rapid population growth, whereas in some western countries the concern is that fertility is too low, leading to population decline and concerns with support

of the elderly. Related to the global fertility decline, family demographers also study the decreasing size of households and the move toward nuclear rather than extended households. Just as family dynamics change in response to fertility decline, the global decline in mortality and increase in life expectancy has also led to changes in family composition and intergenerational relationships. For example, an increased life expectancy means that people are spending more years in marital unions, leaving more opportunity for marriages to dissolve.

As family demography looks to the future there is more work to be done in understanding the unique situation of cohabitors and whether cohabitation in the USA is expected to become more like marriage. Another ongoing focus is likely to be on changing population structures in countries around the world. Populations around the world are becoming more concentrated in the older ages, leading to undesirable ratios between the working population and the elderly. The significance of this age distribution for family processes and inter-generational relationships is likely to become central in family demography.


  1. Bianchi, S. M. & Casper, L. M. (2000) American families. Population Bulletin 55 (4).
  2. Jayakody, R. Thornton, A., & Axinn, W. (2008) International Family      Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New Jersey.
  3. Thornton, A. T., Axinn, W. G. & Xie, Y. (2007) Marriage and Cohabitation. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

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