Are modern social issues old news? Single parents, the ageing population and the Victorian family

by Kevin Schürer

The modern family has its struggles. Single-parent families are often at the forefront of Government debates about welfare and employment. The elderly population is growing, and more and more people live alone in their later years. People marry later and have children later – who in turn are leaving home later and later.

At first glance, our complicated modern family structure might seem to be just that – modern. However, a look at the data shows that family has never been simple.

A recent publication about Victorian and Edwardian families has brought to light some interesting – and familiar – patterns. In fact, the Integrated Census Microdata (I-CeM), the ESRC-funded database of over 175 million records from the censuses of 1851 to 1911 on which the publication is based, suggests that many of what we consider to be modern population trends are not entirely new.

Single-parent families

The rise of the single parent is certainly not a myth. Surveys estimate that since the turn of the millennium some 25% of families with dependent children in Britain are headed by a single parent. This is up from around 1 in 7 such families in 1991, and 1 in 5 in 1996.

Yet single or lone parenthood is not a new feature of British society. The I-CeM data demonstrate comparable numbers of single parent families for the mid-19th and early 20th centuries to modern day Labour Force Survey data. And in some instances are higher than those suggested by the LFS survey.

So whilst single-parent families may not be new, the main causes differ over time. Today, single parenting is more often due to the separation or divorce of the parents, whereas in the Victorian period it was largely mortality driven, resulting from the death of a parent.

This also results in gendered differences as well. Although Victorian fathers were not as likely to be involved in child care, there were up to three times as many single fathers in the Victorian period as today. In any case, it seems that both men and women have been parenting alone long before the rise of modern single-parenthood.

Elderly living alone

We know that today’s population is ageing due to increases in life expectancy, and has been doing so in Britain for a number of decades – what has been termed the secular shift in ageing. What we struggle with are the multiple social and economic consequences of this long-term change.

A study in 2014 revealed that 18.2% of men between the ages of 65 and 74 were living alone. For women, the number was even higher at 31%. After the age of 75 this number takes a sharp decline as many older people seek residence in care homes and other facilities. For men, the percentage living alone drops to 8.8% after the age of 75, and for women it drops to 25%.

Yet, the situation of elderly living on their own may not be as new as we sometimes like to think. In the Victorian era some similar patterns are visible. The population gradually and slowly at first began to get older – the start of the secular shift – from the last few years of Victoria’s reign. This was the result of the combination of declining fertility rates and slow, gradual improvements in adult mortality, especially in the case of women.

Then – as now – living alone was a feature of later life. Unlike today, however, the number of people living alone before the age of 45 was negligible, remaining stable at around 2% of the population between 1851 and 1911. After the age of 45, however, the chances of both men and women living alone went up significantly. The numbers peaked at age 80 for women when 14% could be found living alone. For men, the number peaked at age 85, but at a much lower level, just 8.8% being solitary.

living alone.PNG

Percentage of population living alone: males and females, 1851 and 1911 (taken from Schürer, K, et al (2018). Household and family structure in England and Wales (1851-1911): Continuities and change. Continuity and Change, 33 (3), 365-411)

This general picture changed little over the period 1851 to 1911 covered by the I-CeM data. The gender difference between men and women was due to the fact that, similar to today, Victorian women experienced better mortality rates than males and tended to marry older men, making them more likely to be widows.

Interestingly, in the historic period after the age of 80 the percentage of women living alone dropped as a result of greater numbers pro rata living with their children or in institutional care, often workhouses. In contrast, over the age of 60, almost twice the proportion of men sought accommodation in institutions in comparison to women.

Continuity and change

We may view social and population issues as particular to our times, but a look at the historic census data available through I-CeM reveals they are often not entirely new. However we approach the needs of vulnerable populations like single parents and the elderly, it is worth remembering that these issues are not unique to today, nor are they just appearing for the first time. Of course, there have been massive social changes both in terms of social structure and individual circumstance since the Victorian era, however, as #ESRCBetterLives looks at population and change this month, it is worth remembering the continuities too.


Professor Kevin Schürer is a Professor of English Local History at the University of Leicester. He was previously Director of the UK Data Archive, and has also worked at the internationally-renowned Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure (CAMPOP) and taught in the Department of History, University of Essex, where he was also Research Director and Director of the Centre for Local and Regional History.
He is an elected Fellow of the Academy for the Social Sciences, and Chairs the British Library’s Ethos Committee for online doctoral dissertations.

Throughout 2019 we will be using the #ESRCBetterLives hashtag to showcase outstanding social science research and demonstrate how social science is relevant to everyone. Our Better Lives theme for February is ‘population change’. What social science research has inspired you?

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