Changing family structures

Traditional household structures are changing with family sizes generally decreasing. The once classic extended family model consisting of three generations living under the same roof is now almost extinct. The biggest change is the increase in single person households. By 2021 35% of all the households in the UK are expected to be habited by solo livers, and by 2031, 18% of the entire English population are expected to be living on their own [1]. This is due to a rise in divorce rates, lone parents and elderly women outliving men.  Increased personal and social mobility also means that it is less likely that generations of the same family will live in the same geographical area, with exceptions amongst some ethnic minorities. Young professionals in particular are more likely to more around and live alone, away from their family networks. However, there has also been an increase in young people living with their parents for longer because of high house prices and, more recently, a reduction in the availability of credit during the economic downturn.  People are increasing relying on their friendship groups for support in place of their families; this is particularly significant amongst young people.

What are the implications?

  • A continued increase in single person households may further decrease housing availability and increase debt as people borrow to afford a decent home.
  • Weaker geographical and family ties could lead to a ‘responsibility gap’ – where more vulnerable people may fall outside the care or responsibility of their family, community, VCOs or other governmental institutions.
  • Numbers of volunteers could decrease as family networks are often a gateway in to the community and volunteering.

Moving forward

Changing family networks and the rise in single person households may lead to an increase in debt, poverty, homelessness and problems of mental health and community cohesion.

  • How might these issues impact your organisation? Will the support your organisation provides, or the profile of those you support need to change? What plans do you need to make now to cope with a greater need for services, or a demand for different services?
  • How does your organisation track any changes in the support needs (including financial, social or caring needs) of your users (or non-users)? Do you need to revisit how you capture and act on this information?
  • Do changing family networks suggest opportunities for innovative new ways of support within society (eg based on friendship networks rather than family networks)? Could your organisation play a role in developing or piloting new initiatives?

There is an increasing risk that weaker geographical and family ties could lead to more people lacking adequate support or care from their family or community.

  • Are individuals in your locality or field falling through a 'responsibility gap'? What is the role of your organisation in providing support to these individuals or campaigning for the gap to be filled by others? 
  • Technology is a useful tool in mitigating decreased contact across geographical distance, how could you advise about and advocate its usage amongst those in danger of falling into this gap?

Want to know more?

Focus on Families

Published by: Office for National Statistics - a Government Department.

Date: 2007

Format: PDF plus web-based summaries

What is it? A statistical analysis using demographic information to explore family types’ similarities and differences.

How useful is this?This short analysis focuses on families but also includes a section on households, which finds that more people are living alone.

Unilever Family Report 2005: Home Alone?

Published by: Institute for Public Policy Research – a left of centre think tank.

Date: 2005

Format: PDF

What is it? This report explores the growing trend of people living alone and includes a range of statistics as well as qualitative analysis.

How useful is this? The report aims to supplement existing quantitative data by exploring why people live alone and who they are. Aspects covered include ethnicity, living alone as a rite of passage, whether it is a real choice, its impact on inequality, the different experiences of men and women, the negative financial impact of living alone, and environmental implications. The report also discusses the wider impact on families and social relations. Interestingly, it finds that those who live alone are more likely to say that they might volunteer.

Single person households and social policy: looking forwards

Published by: The Joseph Rowntree Foundation – a research and development charity.

Date: 2006

Format: PDF

What is it?  This paper analyses the implications of the growth in single person households for social policy. It includes a large number of statistics.

How useful is this? The paper looks at the demographic make up of people living alone and draws a distinction between those living alone through choice and those who have been forced to live alone. It highlights the possible impacts solo living can have on poverty and inequality, the labour market, housing policy, health, neighbourhoods and social capital. It also poses possible future research questions.

Household Projections to 2031, England

Published by: Communities and Local Government - a Government Department.

Date: 2009

Format: PDF

What is it? Statistical report on the projected number of households in England and its regions to 2031.

How useful is this? Analysing projections by the Office for National Statistics, the report predicts a growth in households, identifies key factors driving this trend, and draws out regional variations and particular features, such as the increasing number of one-person households. Although projections can never be entirely accurate, this source is extremely helpful in not only providing a picture of today's household structures but also forecasting what the future will look like.

Families in Britain: An Evidence Paper

Published by: Cabinet Office

Date: Dec 2008

Format: PDF (1.92 MB)

What is it? A report by the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit looking in detail at the changing patterns of family composition and characteristics. 

How useful is this? The Family Composition section provides a well presented and accessible overview of the changes that are occurring to traditional models of family make-up and the drivers behind them. The future for families section is especially useful for those interested in how changes in these trends will continue into the future and the possible impact these may have.

Other comments: The report contains a wealth of footnotes within each section allowing further exploration of individual sources if desired.


  1. Household Projections to 2031, England [Back]
Last updated at 09:30 Thu 03/Feb/11.


How will this affect your organisation? Have you considered it during your strategic planning? Can you share any interesting relevant links?

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