Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The contrast between France and Germany, for example, is striking.
Latvians are most likely to live in single parent households, the Maltese and Irish are less likely to get divorced and Germans like getting married a whole lot more than the French do. These are some of the demographic details that can be gleaned from the European Union’s most recent data on its citizens’ relationships and residence. Updated earlier this year, they’ve been represented in a series of intricately detailed maps and charts created by Eurostat. While some of the trends the data reveal are predictable—for example that Catholic Southern Europe has higher proportions of married couple households—other micro trends are intriguing.
Take a look at the above map, for example, which shows the percentage of families that have a married couple at their core. At 71.2 percent of families across the E.U. total, this group still overwhelmingly predominates, but there are nonetheless striking differences in their distribution across the map. Southern Europe is keener on marriage than the north, with particular strongholds for marriage in Greece, Southern Italy, and Northern Portugal. In only five regions did less than 50 percent of families have married couples as their nucleus. Three of these are in Europe politically but not geographically—the French overseas territories of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Guyane—while the remaining two were both in Britain: Glasgow and Inner London East. Overall, families not centered on married couples were far more prevalent in big cities, with the notable exception of Ireland.
Elsewhere, the contrast between France and Germany is striking. Almost all regions of Germany have married couples forming at least 70 percent of family nuclei, with many regions pushing over 80 percent, while neighboring France and French-speaking Belgium show far lower levels. The explanation for this may be partly historic. Since the revolution the concubinage system has accorded some rights to unmarried French couples, a history built on by the adoption of civil partnerships for both opposite and same-sex partners in 1999. This history has lessened the stigma of unmarried cohabitation and put other legally recognized options on the table.
As this second map shows, Northern Europe has more single parent households, though not necessarily in exactly the same spots where married couples are less common. Here the Baltic States, led by Latvia, show the highest numbers of lone parent households, followed by Slovenia and the U.K. When compared to the marriage map, there are some interesting unexpected outliers. While Poland shows consistently high levels of married couple family nuclei across the country, the number of single parent families is noticeably higher in regions of the country that were part of Germany before 1945. Reasons for this aren’t immediately obvious—these regions are relatively wealthier, so it could be that going it alone as a parent is simply more feasible there. Elsewhere, there are also heavier single parent concentrations in Northern Ireland west of the River Bann, a relatively poorer area that has seen its traditional industries decline sharply and has been left behind in the U.K.’s tentative economic recovery.
This third map shows where divorced or widowed people who have not entered into new partnerships are located. They are most heavily concentrated in former Warsaw Pact countries, notably Hungary, the Baltic States and, to a lesser extent Bulgaria. This may be partly due to differing mortality rates—a feature that’s noticeably skewed the gender balance in Latvia, for example. Widespread migration from these regions might have also contributed to gender imbalances that mean partner choices dwindle, though as this map from 2008 suggests, it’s actually Eastern Germany where the ratio of men to women has been more seriously skewed.
Regional disparities in the proportion of one-person households
Finally, the above chart shows exactly where the most E.U. citizens live alone, which accounts for just under a third (31.4) of all dwellings. The horizontal green lines represent national averages—Finland has the highest proportion of solo occupants, at 41 percent of all homes. The chart also shows the important differences between residence patterns in major cities and other regions. The large green dots represent capital regions while the smaller dots represent other parts of the country.
The pattern varies greatly. In Spain and Sweden, for example, people living alone are actually more common outside the country’s capitals, while in Denmark and Germany they are far more common in the capital regions. Of all the E.U.’s cities, people living alone constitute the highest proportion of households in Brussels and Berlin, where almost half consisted of single occupants. Vienna, North Holland (the region including Amsterdam) and the Helsinki and Copenhagen regions were all close behind with between 40 and 45 percent of households consisting of single people.
It’s likely that big cities attract single people for the obvious reason that life there affords them more opportunities than in more family-oriented countrysides. There may also be economic reasons, however. The cities mentioned above are all relatively affluent or have good average rent-to-earnings ratios. Berlin’s rents for example, are relatively low by European big city standards, while the number of smaller apartments available is fairly high. This means single people simply have greater opportunities to live alone than in, say, London, where they are far more likely to co-rent with roommates.