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New normal: Out of wedlock births have stabilized

Data: Council of Europe (2006), NIPSSR (2017), Eurostat (2018), and Martin et al. (2018) via United Nations Population Fund; Note: Final values for Russia and Japan are from 2015; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

While having a baby without being married was uncommon and stigmatized several decades ago, it's becoming the norm in many European countries — and even the U.S., according to a report released today by the United Nations Population Fund.

Why it matters: If having babies without being married becomes increasingly common, it could help stabilize falling fertility rates and avoid an aging, childless future, Michael Herrmann, a senior adviser for economics and demography at UNFPA, told Axios. But it's also likely to lead to more cultural friction, as social conservatives are unlikely to accept more births outside marriage.

How we got here: Demographers point to three key trends that have led to the rise in births outside of marriage:

  • The decline in importance of traditional marriage. While non-traditional forms of cohabitation have become more acceptable in many Western cultures, the social revolution has been much slower in many Asian cultures. That's why births outside of marriage are still rare in places such as Japan and Korea, Herrmann said.
  • Increased opportunity for women to obtain an education and launch successful careers has enabled them to provide for themselves without a husband. Many women, even if living with men, are opting to "keep their legal options open," said Richard Cincotta, director of the Global Political Demography Program at the Stimson Center.
  • More American men are facing unemployment or underemployment, drug use, and jail "due to the loss of secure, well-paid blue collar jobs," Jack Goldstone, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, told Axios.

One notable exception: Russia also saw an increase in births outside of marriage in the 1980s and 1990s, when alcoholism and male mortality rose during the chaos following the collapse of communism, according to Goldstone.

  • But beginning in the early 2000s — as Vladimir Putin came to power — the share of births outside of marriage began to fall. Demographers say that's partly because of Putin's emphasis on traditional family values and new policies encouraging married couples to have more children.

The other side: The trend causes concern for social conservatives. "There's an abundance of evidence in the U.S. to indicate that children are better off with a married mother and father," Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, told Axios. He added that the increase in births outside of marriage "portends less stability for children."

What to watch: While many of these unmarried parents are in committed relationships, others end up as single parents, and "ending up as a single parent means a huge burden," Herrmann said. Single mothers in the U.S., for example, are some of the most likely people to end up in poverty.

  • Developed nations that want to encourage higher fertility rates will need to find ways to provide more support for both single parents and married parents, Herrmann said.
  • Sweden and the Netherlands, for example, have some of the most generous support systems for new parents, including free child care and extensive paternity and maternity leave. They've managed to partially reverse the broader trend of people having fewer kids.
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