We use cookies to collect and analyse information on site performance and usage to improve and customise your experience, where applicable. View our Cookies Policy. Click Accept and continue to use our website or Manage to review and update your preferences.

European Commission survey shows 36% of Irish households are traditional families
Pic: Shutterstock

21 Feb 2020 / ireland Print

36% of Irish households are traditional families – survey

The 2019 Eurofound household composition and well-being survey shows while that the number of households with children has decreased across Europe, Ireland is at the upper end of the scale.

Over 7% of Irish families have three or more children under 18, the highest share in the EU where the average is 3%, down from 4% in 2007.

In 2017 the highest proportions of these households were found in Ireland (7%) and Belgium (5%).

Eurofound (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions) researched households and families in 21st century Europe, and new and emerging living arrangements.

Its data confirms that between 2007 and 2017, nuclear families – defined as parents living with children and without grandparents, other family members or non-family members – have decreased both in actual numbers (from 62.7 million to 60.7 million) and in percentage terms (from 31% to 28% of all households).

This decline in the proportion of nuclear family households has taken place in every EU Member State, the largest decreases being observed in Cyprus, Lithuania and Malta.

The actual number of nuclear family households continued to increase in some countries with growing populations, mostly due to immigration during this time period, especially in the UK (+267,000 households), Ireland (+86,000) and Belgium (+45,000).

Largest declines

The largest declines in the number of nuclear families were in Poland (−615,000) and Germany (−551,000).

In 2017, the countries with the largest proportions of households in the form of nuclear families were Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia (all 37%) and Ireland (36%).

The findings also show the number of single-person households has increased and a large proportion of these households are older women who have lost their (male) partner.

Average household size has been shrinking in the past decades and over the longer term in Europe, while the number of households has increased as more people live independently.

Decreasing fertility 

Household types have diversified with alternative family forms and the economic crisis has meant an increase in multi-generational households and young adults living at home.

The authors point out that a policy concern of most EU Member States is demographic ageing and decreasing fertility.

Some governments have introduced policies or legal rights as a response to increasing household diversity – for example, recognising cohabitation, same-sex marriage or blended families.

Single-person households are at greater risk of poverty and social exclusion. Single people of middle and older age, especially, have worse health and subjective well-being than those living with partners, the authors say.

Route to marriage

Older people living alone have better well-being than their younger counterparts. Co-habitation of unmarried partners has increased significantly in most EU Member States.

In eastern and southern countries, co-habitation is still primarily a route to marriage. In Nordic and western European countries, it is often a permanent arrangement, the researchers say.

Co-habiting partners have poorer subjective well-being than married partners. Many countries have introduced some rights to property and benefits for cohabiting couples; in most, formal registration is required.

Couples without children have better living conditions and work-life balance than couple parents. However, they have worse subjective well-being.

Over the age of 65, there is less correlation between well-being and having no children, although an association is observed between being without children, and greater social exclusion and lower happiness, the survey says.

Same-sex couples have, on average, similar material living conditions to opposite-sex couples, but a higher incidence of chronic illness.

Greater social exclusion

This might be due to mental health problems tied to discrimination, the authors say.

They also experience greater social exclusion and are less likely to turn to family or friends for support.

The proportion of retired-couple households is expected to increase further with rising male life expectancy.

Retired couples are happier, more satisfied and more optimistic than retired people in other types of households and have better material living conditions, especially women.

Survivor pensions

Gender differences after retirement are substantial. Women are at greater risk of poverty in older age. Many countries respond to this with survivor pensions and factoring maternity leave in to pensions.

However, people who have been married remain at an advantage after retirement, especially women.

The absolute and relative number of nuclear families is declining in most countries. Parents in nuclear families have the best subjective well-being and highest optimism of respondents across all household types.

Most nuclear families are dual-earning and have the most unbalanced allocation of unpaid work: women do the most housework, and many have problems with work–life balance.

Fathers do more hours of paid work than men without children and often have associated work–life balance issues. 

The proportion of lone-parent households has also increased in the EU.

Poverty and deprivation

Lone parents are at higher risk of poverty and deprivation, and have difficulties budgeting due to single incomes and lower employment rates.

Working lone parents are the most likely to have issues with work–life balance despite working shorter hours. Both lone fathers and lone mothers do more housework than parents in couples.

Lone parents have worse subjective well-being and social exclusion than couple parents. Social support from family and friends is important for lone parents’ subjective well-being.

Blended families

Blended families are rarely recognised in family policy, but their numbers are increasing. Parents in blended families have better outcomes in terms of well-being and living conditions than lone parents.

Children’s well-being in these households depends on the quality of relationships with parents and step-parents.

Multi-generational households are most common in eastern EU Member States. Parents and grandparents in these households have worse well-being than their peers in other households.

The number of young adults living with their parents increased between 2007 and 2017. Subjective well-being is worse among young adults living with their parents than those living independently, especially among over-25s.

However, the parental home provides protection against poverty and can maintain mental well-being, especially for unemployed young adults.

Non-family households, mostly found in urban areas, are more at risk of poverty than other households. People in non-family households are younger, more likely to be immigrants and often have issues with accommodation.

However, their well-being is similar to other households.

Better well-being

Older people living alone have better well-being than those living with their children, although this may be due to a range of factors (such as poor health or low income).

Policies can aim at helping older people live independently; meanwhile, living in community with other older people or with younger people can reduce social exclusion and delay the need for residential care.

Households diversification is also connected to the economic crisis, which resulted in the return of the multigenerational household and, for many young people, caused delay in moving out of the family home.

Changes in household structure are important, as they have implications for demand for public services, the authors say.

Greater demand

Older people living alone may have a greater demand for healthcare and long-term care, while a change in the number of households with children has implications for housing, childcare and education systems.

In urban areas with limited housing stock, a high number of single-person households contributes to pressures on housing demand.

The report argues that more attention needs to be paid to the following types of household:

  • single-person households (ensuring that older people, if they wish to, can live alone or in a community for longer),
  • multi-generational households (which seem to form out of financial and/or care needs and not due to preference, resulting in lower well-being for all members),
  • increasingly common household types such as cohabiting couples, same-sex couples and stepfamilies, who are not legally recognised in many Member States.

The European Pillar of Social Rights (November 2017) introduces 20 key principles, several of which are relevant for households.

Among other things, the Pillar stresses the need for affordable long-term care, the right to childcare and equality between men and women in work and care responsibilities.

The Work–Life Balance Directive, which entered into force in August 2019, recognises family diversity and different types of care responsibilities and sets minimum standards for countries to provide for working carers.

Not all governments recognise the extent of household diversity, the authors say.

Many are concerned rather with demographic shifts, and have concentrated on seeking to increase fertility rates and making pensions affordable.

New family forms 

However, some have introduced policies and a legal framework related to new family forms – for example, increasing the rights of cohabiting unmarried couples.

Globally, Europe has the highest proportion of single-person households. Several economic and demographic factors play a role in the rise of single-person households, among them:

  • longer life,
  • smaller family size,
  • financial independence of women,
  • improved gender equality and later age of getting married,
  • increase in wealth,
  • improved standard of living and better education,
  • shorter relationships and increase in divorce and separation,
  • migration, such as young people moving alone abroad because of a temporary job.

Single-person households are not a homogeneous group, and living alone may be a transitional arrangement before moving in with someone else.

However, on average, one-person households tend to be more vulnerable when it comes to hardship. Households are centres of emotional and financial support, and of care, and can be safety nets in times of need.

Single-person households have lower median household income, higher housing and utility costs that have to be paid by one person, and a more precarious living situation with no fallback in terms of family or a partner in the household.

This vulnerability leads to more difficulties when dealing with unemployment, injury, illness, loneliness and social isolation.

Sociological study

The rise in single-person households has also been the subject of sociological study. Klinenberg (2016) suggests that this is not a manifestation of an increasingly isolated society, since there is not necessarily a causal link between living alone and feeling lonely.

Instead, the choice of living alone is a result of increasing wealth, the revolution in information and communication technologies, mass urbanisation and increased longevity (Klinenberg, 2012). Callero (2015) suggests that the rise of single households reflects ‘networked individualism’: a new type of social engagement where spatial connection is replaced or supplemented by person-to-person connections mediated by communication technologies.

The rise of single-person households represents a challenge for cities: capital cities and metropolitan areas record some of the highest concentrations of single-person households, especially in the big urban centres of western Europe.

This shift represents not only a demographic but also a cultural phenomenon (Furedi, 2002) with important health, sociocultural, economic and environmental implications (PhysOrg, 2017).

Policy implications 

Policy implications of single-person households include a higher cost of living per household and less access to informal care and family support.

This will have an impact on a wide range of policies, including those related to long-term care, social security, pensions, employment, health and housing and labour market mobility.

In 2017, the highest proportions of single-person households were in Denmark, Finland, Germany and Sweden; the lowest were in Cyprus, Slovakia and Portugal.

The number of people living alone as a proportion of the population was 17% in the EU overall, and increased by 2 percentage points over 10 years.

This was highest in Germany, Estonia and Lithuania, while in Cyprus and Slovakia less than 10% of the population lived alone.

General trend

While the general trend was an increase in the proportion of people living alone, a slowing or even a reverse trend was seen in a few countries: Luxembourg, Slovakia, Poland, Denmark, Belgium and the UK.

Women are more likely to live alone than men: 42% of women and just 24% of men in the EU live alone. This difference is not universal: in Ireland, Sweden, Denmark and Slovenia, the proportion of men and women living alone is very similar, while the difference was over 40 percentage points in Greece and Czechia.

In line with previous findings on all households (Eurofound, 2017), having health problems, being widowed or divorced and having low income have negative relationships with life satisfaction and happiness for those living alone.

Ireland gives living alone increases for pensioners and people on disability allowance.

Correlation between divorce and cohabitation 

EU data shows a positive correlation between divorce rates and cohabitation rates.

Countries seen as being traditional (Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Poland and Romania) are characterised by low rates of marriage breakdown; in these countries, cohabitation is also rare.

In northern and western countries, both rates are higher.

‘Cohabitation gap’ 

The authors describe a ‘cohabitation gap’ in well-being, with marriage associated with better well-being even when material resources and other factors are controlled for.

in eastern Europe, pre-marriage cohabitation is the most common situation, as compared to cohabitation as a permanent lifestyle replacing marriage.

Some countries have introduced policies recognising cohabitation and providing some legal protection to cohabiting couples.


This ‘institutionalisation’ is related to well-being in cohabiting couple households. Unmarried couples do not have the same rights as married couples in most countries.

In Ireland, the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act (2010) provides some legal rights to cohabiting partners based on the length of time in the same household.

Over three-quarters of young adults aged 18-24 in the EU usually live with at least one of their parents.

The highest proportions were in Croatia and Slovakia (94%) and Italy and Slovenia (92%).

At age 25-29, this proportion was lower – 37%, in the EU overall – and for this cohort it was highest in Croatia (73%) and Greece (69%).

Moving out

Young people in the Nordic countries usually move out earliest, while the highest proportions of young adults living with their parents were in southern and eastern member states as well as Ireland.

There was, however, a small overall increase between 2007 and 2017 in the proportion of young adults living with their parents: 3 percentage points for those aged 18–24 and 2 percentage points for those aged 25–29.

For the younger age group, large increases were seen in Belgium (+14 percentage points), France and Sweden (+13 percentage points); for those aged 25–29, the largest increases were in Luxembourg, Ireland and Romania.


Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland