Academic journal article Population

Age at First Union in France: A Two-Stage Process of Change

Academic journal article Population

Age at First Union in France: A Two-Stage Process of Change

Article excerpt

The formation of a first stable union may be regarded as one of the key events in the transition to adulthood, as this is usually the moment when young people become truly independent from their parents (Bozon and Villeneuve-Gokalp, 1995; Galland. 1995 and 2000; Toulemon, 1994). Moreover, a stable partnership is generally viewed as a prerequisite for deciding to start a family. Any delay in the age at which men and women cross this threshold is therefore likely to impact on the next step: the birth of the first child.

Over the past fifteen years or so, a number of surveys by INED (1985 and 1994 "Family Situations" surveys) and INSEE. the French National Statistical Institute (annual Labour Force Surveys) have indicated a fall in the proportion of men and women living in union (see, for example, Leridon and Villeneuve-Gokalp, 1994; Toulemon, 1997); data from the 1999 Census confirmed the decline in unions among women under 60 and among men up to age 75 (Prioux, 2002). In the older age groups, this pattern is clearly due to the increase in union break-ups: for although repartnering is common, it does not always occur immediately, and the proportion of persons enumerated in the census as living alone is rising. For younger individuals, however, it is very hard to disentangle the effects of later first union and of marital instability. Just thirty years ago, marriage statistics gave a reasonably accurate account of entry into first union, but recourse to surveys has since become indispensable for dating this major event in the lives of men and women, now that unmarried cohabitation has spread to become the most common way of starting life as a couple.

Around 1970, fewer than one in five couples began their life together without being married, compared with nine in ten today (Toulemon, 1997). Not only has it become almost exceptional to wait to be married to start living as a couple, but an increasing number of couples never legalize their union. Whereas marriage was once the near exclusive context for child-bearing, living in union, with or without marriage, is today the usual preliminary condition. As a result, although analysis of nuptiality has lost none of its sociological interest, demographers are increasingly focusing on couple formation. At what age do men and women form their first cohabiting partnerships? Are the male and female timetables converging? Are couples being formed earlier or later than in the past? What proportion of men and women never live in a union? These are some of the questions addressed in this article, drawing on the data gathered in the INSEEINED "Study of Family History" survey (Enquête Étude de l'Histoire Familiale, or, more simply, Enquête Famille: hereafter EHF) conducted jointly with the 1999 Census.

A retrospective survey on a very large sample is the only way to measure accurately the rise in the age at first union, and most importantly to date the beginning of this shift with a view to identifying its causes. The 1999 EHF survey allows this, thanks to two important innovations. For the first time, the survey included men as well as women, and the questions were no longer confined to marriages but covered the periods respondents had spent "living as a couple". Thanks to their special focus on the first experience of living in union, the questions enable us to measure exactly in what proportions and at what ages men and women enter into first unions, irrespective of their current union status.

We confine our study to observation of the temporal changes in the frequency and timing of this event, starting with the cohorts born in the 1930s which reached adulthood in the late 1940s. First unions of men and women are analysed separately, not jointly, and it should be borne in mind that for women in particular, some first unions are formed with a partner for whom this is a second union. We also observe the annual trend in first union formation, and suggest some explanations for the changes identified. …

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