"Many life plans have changed"
Between 1960 and 2020, people’s life plans – and also, as a result, the courses their lives took – underwent profound changes. This transformation had, and is still having, effects on important demographic indicators such as marriage rates and birth rates.
The 1950s are seen as a golden age for marriages. The aim which an overwhelming majority of young people had was to get married and have children. Around 1960, the marriage rate achieved an all-time high of ten per thousand, which was accompanied by a high birth rate – which we still see as the last baby boom. In the last 20 years, by contrast, it has been only for a minority of young adults that marriage has represented the basis for a relationship between two people, or for parenthood. As a result, the marriage rate is only half of what it was in 1960. Since 2010, around one-third of children have been born outside wedlock. In 1965 it was only six percent.
The central driver for this change was a comprehensive paradigm shift which led to individual self-realisation became more important in society. This was reflected, firstly, in a liberalisation of standards as regards sexuality and marriage. This included easier access to contraceptives (from 1970), the liberalisation of legislation governing sexual offences (1969, 1972) and abortion (1974/76), as well as reforms of family law and divorce law. These made it possible to split up the traditional ‘unity’ of sexuality, parenthood and marriage.
Secondly, this individualisation was accompanied by an educational revolution which expanded the opportunities for people’s life plans, improving young women’s educational level and increasing their chances of employment. This gave added significance to the loss of income associated with having children. This, together with more easily available contraception, is seen as the main reason why, between 1965 and 1975 in the former West Germany, the birth rate dropped from 2.5 births per women to 1.4, at which level it has since remained. Easing the conflict for women between their roles as mother, working woman and housewife has therefore become an important area for family and social policymaking.
The author, Prof. Ulrich Pfister, holds the Chair of Social and Economic History at the University of Münster.
This article was first published in the University newspaper wissen|leben, No. 1, 2 February 2022.