Family instability affects four in ten children of the millennium generation

28 November 2014

Nearly four in every ten children born at the turn of the century lived through at least one change in their parents’ relationship status in their first 11 years – up from just one in ten in 1969, a new study finds.

The report published by the Institute of Education, London, sets out how home life has changed for more than 13,000 children born across the UK in 2000-02. The findings – based on the Millennium Cohort Study – show that 21 per cent had experienced one change in their household make-up, mostly due to their parents’ partnerships breaking down or new ones forming. Fourteen per cent had seen two or more changes.

The number of families headed by two natural parents (either married or cohabitating) dropped from 85 per cent when the children were aged 9 months, to 61 per cent at age 11.

Although some cohabiting parents got married over this period, a significant number of marriages also ended. By age 11, 50 per cent of children lived with two natural parents who were married, down from 60 per cent at age 9 months.

More than a quarter (26%) of children were being brought up in single-parent homes at age 11, up from 15 per cent at age 9 months. Twelve per cent of 11-year-olds were living in ‘blended’ families, which included a step-parent. Less than 1 per cent lived in such households at age 9 months.

A very small number (1%) were not living with either of their natural parents.

Family life for the millennium children has been far less stable than it was for the generation born 40 years earlier. Nearly 90 per cent of 11-year-olds in 1969 lived with both of their natural parents. Only 6 per cent were in lone parent families, 3 per cent in blended families and 2 per cent in ‘other’ family types (including adoptive ones).

Despite the apparent rise in instability, the millennium generation are very satisfied with their lives. Three quarters of the children of the new century also reported being ‘completely happy’ with their families.

However, many children and families who experience instability also face other risks.

More than a quarter of 11-year-olds in lone- and step-parent families had behavioural problems, compared to just over one in ten of those in two-natural-parent homes. Children not living with either of their natural parents were most likely (35%) to have such difficulties.

Families that have always included two natural parents were most likely to have older mothers and parents with degree-level qualifications. Children in these households were also the least likely (14%) to be living in poverty at age 11. More than half (53%) of consistently lone-parent families were poor at this age. Blended families had the second highest poverty rate (32%), followed by lone parents who had previously been in a relationship (26%).

Families with two natural parents were also most likely to own their home (77%). Social housing was the most common form of accommodation among other family types. Sixty-five per cent of lone parents, 40 per cent of previously partnered lone parents, and 36 per cent of blended families rented their home from a local authority or housing association.

“Family structure is associated with either socioeconomic advantage or disadvantage for a range of reasons,” explained Roxanne Connelly, lead author. “The breakdown of partnerships can lead to disadvantage because families with one parent are less likely to have a full-time, well-paid worker. But, equally, economic disadvantage can create pressures that lead to break-ups.”

Black Caribbean children were the most likely (61%) to be living in lone parent families at age 11. Just over one in four White children (26%) were being brought up by lone parents at this age, but only 9 per cent of Indian and Bangladeshi children.

Read the full report and briefing paper

Briefing paper: Family structure and stability: Initial findings from the Millennium Cohort Study Age 11 survey (PDF)

Full report: Connelly, R., Joshi, H. & Rosenberg, R. (2014) Family structure. In Platt, L. (ed) Millennium Cohort Study Age 11 Survey Initial Findings. London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS).

Podcast: Family structure at age 11 – with Prof Heather Joshi

Further information

Meghan Rainsberry
020 7612 6530
07531 864 481

David Budge
020 7911 5349
07881 415362

Notes for editors

  1. The Millennium Cohort Study is following children born in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002. The study is managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education, London. The five surveys of cohort members conducted so far – at ages 9 months and 3, 5, 7 and 11 years – have built up a uniquely detailed portrait of the children of the new century. The study has collected information on diverse aspects of their lives, including behaviour, cognitive development, health, schooling, housing and parents’ employment and education.
  2. As part of the Age 11 survey, parents completed the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, which is a standard set of questions about child behaviour. It covers five key areas: conduct problems, hyperactivity, emotional symptoms, peer problems and pro-social behaviour.
  3. Families were deemed to be in poverty if they were living on less than 60 per cent of the median income of all families in the MCS.
  4. The Millennium Cohort Study’s survey of 11-year-olds was carried out by Ipsos MORI between January 2012 and February 2013. Trained fieldworkers conducted 13,287 interviews with the children and their parents/guardians. Data from this survey and previous MCS surveys can be downloaded from the UK Data Service.
  5. The study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and a consortium of government departments, co-ordinated by the Office for National Statistics and including the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health, the Department for Transport, the Home Office, the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.
  6. The Institute of Education is a world-leading university specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In the 2014 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for education worldwide. It has been shortlisted in the ‘University of the Year’ category of the 2014 Times Higher Education (THE) awards. In January 2014, the Institute was recognised by Ofsted for its ‘outstanding’ initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the publications that the IOE submitted were judged to be internationally significant and over a third were judged to be ‘world leading’. On 2 December 2014, the Institute will become a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education.
  7. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

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