An overview of who single parents are today and what issues disproportionately affect single parent families.

Single parents today

In the UK:

  • There are around 1.8 million single parents – they make up nearly a quarter of families with dependent children (i)
  • Less than one per cent of single parents are teenagers (ii)
  • Around 90 per cent of single parents are women (iii)
  • The average age of a single parent is 39 years (iv)

Then and now

  • The proportion of families with children headed by single parents has remained at around 25 per cent for over a decade. The current figure is 22.7 per cent (v)
  • The proportion of single parents who are fathers has stayed at around 10 per cent for over ten years (vi)

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Who are single parents?

  • Around 90 per cent of single parents are women; the proportion who are men has remained at around 10 per cent for over a decade (i)
  • Less than one per cent of single parents are teenagers (aged 16-19 years) (ii)
  • The average age of a single parent is around 39 years; single mothers tend to be younger than single fathers on average (38 years compared with 45 years old, respectively) (iii)
  • Slightly less than half – 44 per cent – of single parents had their children within marriage; that is, they are married/in a civil partnership, separated, divorced or a surviving partner (iv)
  • Single fathers are more than three times as likely to be widowed than single mothers (7 per cent compared with 2 per cent) (v)
  • 21 per cent of single parents are from a Black or minority ethnic background (including those of other White origin, apart from White British), compared with 16 per cent nationally (vi)
  • 28 per cent of single parents have a disability, compared with 14 per cent of couple parents (vii)

References

i. ONS (2019) Families and households. Table 1.

ii. Gingerbread analysis of Labour Force Survey (January-March 2019).

iii. See ii.

iv. See ii.

v. See ii.

vi. ONS (2013) Census 2011, Table DC1201EW.

vii. See ii.

Single parent families

  • Single parent families make up nearly a quarter of families with dependent children (i)
  • The proportion of families headed by single parents increased during the 1970s to 1990s, but has remained largely the same since 2001 (ii)
  • Just under 3 million children live in single parent families, which is 21 per cent of all children in families; this proportion has remained around the same for over a decade (iii)
  • 55 per cent of single parent families have one child; 32.1 per cent have two children and 13 per cent have three or more children (iv)
  • On average, single parenthood lasts around five years (v)

References

i. ONS (2019) Families and households. Table 1.

ii. Gingerbread (2018) One in four: a profile of single parents in the UK.

iii. See i, Table 3.

iv. See iii.

v. Skew, A., et al. (2008) Leaving lone parenthood: Analysis of the repartnering patterns of lone mothers in the UK.

The impact of single parenthood

  • Research shows that marital status in itself has little causal impact on child outcomes, with differences more likely to be explained by ‘selection effect’ (ie the difference between the types of people who choose to get married and those that choose to cohabit) (i)
  • On average, children who experience single parenthood during their childhood have poorer cognitive outcomes than those that grow up in families that remain “intact”. However, research shows that family structure in itself has little effect on children’s cognitive and emotional outcomes once other factors such as parental education are taken into account (ii).This pattern is confirmed by more recent analysis of the Millenium Cohort Study, focusing on health, cognitive and behavioural outcomes at ages 5, 7 and 11 (iii)
  • Recent research focusing on life satisfaction, relationships with peers and feelings about family life found these to be more positive for those children who were, or had been, part of a single parent family (iv)
  • There is no robust estimation on the cost of ‘relationship breakdown’; the only existing attempts to estimate this are strongly limited – in particular, they do not confine costs to the causal impact of separation and associated costs are largely without an evidence base (v)

References

i. Crawford, C. et al (2013) Cohabitation, marriage, relationship stability and child outcomes: Final report. London: Institute for Fiscal Studies.
ii. Harkness, S. (2014) Time to shift the policy spotlight off single parents. Society Central.
iii. LSE Enterprise (2017) Children’s wellbeing and development outcomes for ages 5, 7 and 11, and their predictors.
iv. Rabindrakumar, S. (2017) Family portrait: single parent families and transition over time.
v. Rabindrakumar, S. (2015) Challenging the costs of relationship breakdown. London: Gingerbread.

References for Single Parents Today and Then and Now

i. ONS (2019) Families and households. Table 1.
ii. Gingerbread analysis of Labour Force Survey (January-March 2019).
iii. See reference i.
iv. See reference ii.
v. See reference i.
vi. See reference i.

Statistics last updated September 2019