Family Structure

Key Findings: Children’s lives are influenced by the number of parents and siblings that they live with, as well as by whether their parents are married. The World Family Map reports these key indicators of family structure in this section.

  • Although two-parent families are becoming less common in many parts of the world, they still constitute a majority of families around the globe. Children under age 18 are more likely to live in two-parent families than in other family forms in Asia and the Middle East, compared with other regions of the world. Children are more likely to live with one or no parent in the Americas, Europe, Oceania, and Sub-Saharan Africa than in other regions.
  • Extended families (which include parent(s) and kin from outside the nuclear family) also appear to be common in Asia, the Middle East, South America, and Sub-Saharan Africa, but not in other regions of the world.
  • Marriage rates are declining in many regions. Adults are most likely to be married in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and are least likely to be married in South America, with Europe, North America, and Oceania falling in between. Cohabitation (living together without marriage) is more common among couples in Europe, North America, Oceania, and—especially—in South America.
  • Childbearing rates are declining worldwide. The highest fertility rates are in Sub-Saharan Africa. A woman gives birth to an average of 5.5 children in Nigeria—down from close to seven in the 1980s, but still high by world standards. Moderate rates of fertility (2.3-3.1) are found in the Middle East, and levels of fertility that are sufficient to replace a country’s population in the next generation (about 2.1) are found in the Americas and Oceania. Below replacement-level fertility is found in East Asia and Europe.
  • Given the decline in marriage rates, childbearing outside of marriage—or nonmarital childbearing—is increasing in many regions. The highest rates of nonmarital childbearing are found in South America and Europe, paralleling increases in cohabitation, with moderate rates found in North America and Oceania, varied rates found in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the lowest rates found in Asia and the Middle East.

Living Arrangements

Family living arrangements—how many parents are in the household and whether the household includes extended family members—shape the character and contexts of children’s lives, as well as the human resources available for children. As evidenced in Figures 2 and 3, which are derived from IPUMS, DHS, and national censuses, the living arrangements that children experience vary substantially around the globe.

Kinship ties are particularly powerful in much of Asia, the Middle East, South America, and Sub-Saharan Africa. In the majority of the countries in these regions, more than 40 percent of children lived in households with other adults besides their parents. See Figure 2. In many cases, these adults were extended family members. Indeed, at least half of children lived with adults besides their parents in parts of Africa (Kenya [52 percent], Nigeria [59 percent], and South Africa [70 percent]); Asia (India [50 percent]); and South America (Nicaragua [55 percent], Peru [51 percent], and Colombia [61 percent]). In these regions, then, children were especially likely to be affected by their relationships with other adults in the household, including grandparents, uncles, and cousins, compared with children living in regions where extended household members played smaller roles in children’s day-to-day lives.

Whether in nuclear or extended family households, children were especially likely to live with two parents (who could be biological parents or step parents) in Asia and the Middle East. See Figure 3. On the basis of the data available for the specific countries examined in these regions, more than 80 percent of children in these three regions lived with two parents (ranging from 84 percent in Israel/Turkey to 92 percent in Jordan). About 80 to 90 percent of children in European countries lived in two-parent households (ranging from 76 percent in the United Kingdom to 89 percent in Italy/Poland). In the Americas, about one-half to three-quarters of children lived in two-parent households, from 53 percent in Colombia to 78 percent in Canada. The two-parent pattern was more mixed in Sub-Saharan Africa, ranging from 36 percent (South Africa) to 69 percent (Nigeria). Some of these children living in two-parent households were also living with extended families, as noted above.



By contrast, in much of South America and Sub-Saharan Africa, from 16 percent (Bolivia) to 43 percent (South Africa) of children lived in single-parent families and from four percent (Argentina) to 20 percent (South Africa) of children lived in homes without either of their parents. Among the South American countries in this study, for instance, Colombia had the highest percentage of children living without either of their parents: 12 percent. The high percentage of South African children living with one parent or without either parent—43 percent and 20 percent, respectively reflects the high incidence of AIDS orphans,1 as well as adult mortality from other causes and labor migration.

Finally, although a small percentage of children in North America, Oceania, and Europe lived in households without at least one of their parents, a large minority—about one-fifth—lived in single-parent households. Rates were slightly lower in Europe. In these regions, the United States (27 percent), the United Kingdom (24 percent), and New Zealand (24 percent) had particularly high levels of single parenthood. Many European countries have projected the proportion of children living with single parents to grow through 2030.2

In sum, the regional patterns identified in this section of The World Family Map suggest that children are especially likely to live with two parents in Asia and the Middle East. Elsewhere large minorities of children live with either one parent (Europe, North America, Oceania, South America, and Sub-Saharan Africa) or neither parent (South America and Sub-Saharan Africa). Extended families are common in Asia, the Middle East, South America, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

In general, then, extended kinship ties to children appear to be stronger in low-income regions of the world, and children are more likely to live in two-parent families in regions where higher incomes or marriages (see below) are more prevalent.

Marriage and Cohabitation

The nature, function, and firsthand experience of marriage varies around the world. Marriage looks and feels different in Sweden, compared with the experience in Saudi Arabia; in China, compared with the experience in Canada; and in Argentina, compared with the experience in Australia. Nevertheless, across time and space, in most societies and cultures, marriage has been an important institution for structuring adult intimate relationships and connecting parents to one another and to any children that they have together.3 In particular, in many countries, marriage has played an important role in providing a stable context for bearing and rearing children, and for integrating fathers into the lives of their children.4

However, today the hold of marriage as an institution over the adult life course and the connection between marriage and parenthood vary around much of the globe. Dramatic increases in cohabitation, divorce, and nonmarital childbearing in the Americas, Europe, and Oceania over the last four decades suggest that the institution of marriage is much less relevant in these parts of the world.5 At the same time, the meaning of marriage appears to be shifting in much of the world. Marriage is becoming more of an option for adults, rather than a necessity for the survival of adults and children. Cohabitation has emerged an important precursor or alternative to marriage in many countries for any number of reasons. Adults may look for more flexibility or freedom in their relationships, or they may feel that they do not have sufficient financial or emotional resources to marry, or they may perceive marriage as a risky undertaking.6

Given the changing patterns and perceptions about marriage and cohabitation in many contemporary societies, this section of The World Family Map measures how prevalent marriage and cohabitation are among adults in their prime childbearing and childrearing years (18-49) around the globe.

Figure 4 provides information compiled from censuses and surveys conducted in 41 countries around the world, primarily in the early- and mid-2000s. These data indicate that adults aged 18-49 were most likely to be married in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and were least likely to be married in South America. Marriage levels fell in the moderate range (about half) in most of Europe, Oceania, and North America. Moreover, the data show that a larger percentage of adults were cohabiting in Europe, the Americas, and Oceania than in other regions.

As Figure 4 also shows, between 47 (Singapore) and 77 percent (India) of the young adult population in the Asian countries included in this report were married, and marriage was even more common in the Middle East, where a clear majority of adults (between 61 [Turkey] and 80 [Egypt] percent) were married.


By contrast, marriage patterns fell in the mid-range, or were less consistent, in the Americas, Europe, and Sub-Saharan Africa. In North America and Oceania, about half of adults aged 18-49 were married, ranging from 43 (Canada) to 58 percent (Mexico). In the Sub-Saharan African countries studied, marriage patterns showed a great deal of variation, with between 30 (South Africa) and 67 percent (Nigeria) of adults aged 18-49 married. Indeed, South Africa had one of the lowest marriage levels of any country included in this study. Likewise, among the European countries, between 37 (Sweden) and 60 percent (Romania) of adults aged 18-49 were married, with marriage clearly being more common in Eastern Europe. By contrast, in South America, generally, less than 40 percent of adults were married; in Colombia, the proportion of married adults in that age group was a low 19 percent.

Figure 4 indicates that cohabitation was rare in Asia and the Middle East, two regions where relatively traditional mores still dominate family life. Moderate to high levels of cohabitation were found in North America and Oceania, where between eight (Mexico/United States) and 19 percent (Canada) of adults aged 18-49 were in cohabiting relationships. Levels of cohabitation in Sub- Saharan Africa varied considerably, with comparatively high levels of cohabitation in South Africa (13 percent) and low levels in Ethiopia (4 percent), Nigeria (2 percent), and Kenya (4 percent).

The data also show high levels of cohabitation in much of Europe. For example about one-quarter of Swedish and French adults aged 18-49 were living in a cohabiting relationship. Cohabitation is most common among South Americans, where consensual unions have played a longstanding role in South American society.7 Between 12 (Chile) and 39 percent (Colombia) of adults aged 18-49 lived in cohabiting unions in South America, with Colombia registering the highest level of cohabitation of any country in our global study.

In general, marriage seems to be more common in Asia and the Middle East, whereas alternatives to marriage—including cohabitation—were more common in Europe and South America. North America, Oceania, and Sub-Saharan Africa fell in between. Both cultural and economic forces may help to account for these regional differences.

It remains to be seen, however, how the varied place of marriage in society—and the increasing popularity of cohabitation in many regions of the world—affect the well-being of children in countries around the globe.


Family size also affects the well-being of children, in part because children in large families tend to receive fewer financial and practical investments than do children in small families.8 Alternatively, some research suggests that children who grow up without siblings lose out on important social experiences.9 How, then, is region linked to family size around the globe?

Table 1 presents the total fertility rate (the average number of children born to each woman of childbearing age) as a proxy for family size. These data indicate that large families were most common in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the total fertility rate (TFR) ranged from 2.5 children per woman in South Africa to 5.5 per woman in Nigeria. Fertility was also high in the Middle East, ranging from a TFR of 2.4 in Turkey to a TFR of 3.1 in Jordan.


In the Americas and Oceania, fertility rates are now close to the replacement level of 2.1. This means that women in most countries in these regions were having enough children for the population to replace itself from one generation to the next or levels that were just slightly below replacement levels. For instance, the TFR was 1.9 in Australia, 1.9 in Chile, 2.3 in Mexico, and 1.9 in the United States. It is worth noting that fertility has fallen markedly in South America in the last four decades, which is one reason that fertility rates in South America (which range from a TFR of 1.8 in Brazil and Costa Rica to 3.3 in Bolivia) now come close to paralleling those in North America and Oceania.10

Fertility rates in Europe had increased since their lows in the early 2000s, but generally remained below the replacement level.11 Ireland had a replacement level TFR of 2.1, but the TFRs for all other countries in this region fell below this level, ranging from 1.4 to 2.0.

Finally, fertility rates in Asia, especially East Asia, have fallen dramatically in recent years and vary substantially, to the point where the TFR ranged from 3.1 (Philippines) to 1.1 (Taiwan).12 Indeed, no country in East Asia had a fertility rate higher than 1.4. The long-term consequences of such low fertility—both for the children themselves and for the societies they live in—remain to be seen.

Nonmarital childbearing

Tracking nonmarital childbearing is important because in many societies, children born outside of marriage are less likely to enjoy a stable family life than are children born to married parents. Children whose parents are not married also are less likely to have positive outcomes in many areas of life, from social behavior to academic performance.13

Figure 5 indicates that rates of nonmarital childbearing were especially high in South America, followed by those in much of Northern and Western Europe. In South America, well over half of children were born to unmarried mothers, with Colombia registering the highest levels (85 percent). In much of Europe, between a third and a half of children were born outside of marriage, whereas in France and Sweden, more than 50 percent of children were born outside of marriage. In many European countries, the average age of first childbirth is now younger than the average age of first marriage.14 Similarly, in Colombia marriage rates are even lower among those under 30 than for the entire reproductive-aged population.


Nonmarital childbearing was also common in Oceania and North America. In these regions, about four in 10 children were born outside of marriage, ranging from 27 (Canada) to 55 percent (Mexico), with the U.S. at 41 percent. By contrast, trends in nonmarital childbearing were quite varied in Sub-Saharan Africa, ranging from a low of 6 percent in Nigeria to a high of 62 percent in South Africa. Finally, nonmarital childbearing is comparatively rare throughout much of Asia and the Middle East. With the exception of the Philippines (where 37 percent of children were born to unmarried parents), nonmarital childbearing was in the single digits in these two regions. Not surprisingly, these patterns track closely with the marriage and cohabitation trends identified above in Figure 3; that is, where marriage was prevalent, the proportion of children born outside of marriage was smaller, and in countries with high levels of cohabitation, births outside of marriage were more common.

1 Neddy Rita Matshalaga and Greg Powell, “Mass Orphanhood in the Era of HIV/AIDS,” British Medical Journal 324 (2002), Anthony J. McMichael et al., “Mortality Trends and Setbacks: Global Convergence or Divergence,” Lancet 363 (2004).
2 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “Doing Better for Families,” (OECD, 2011)
3 See, for example, B. Chapais, Primeval Kinship: How Pair Bonding Gave Birth to Human Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), K. Davis, Contemporary Marriage: Comparative Perspectives on a Changing Institution (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1985), W. J. Goode, World Revolution and Family Patterns (New York: Free Press, 1963).
4 Chapais, Primeval Kinship: How Pair Bonding Gave Birth to Human Society, P. Heuveline, J. Timberlake, M., and F. F. Furstenberg, “Shifting Childrearing to Single Mothers: Results from 17 Western Countries,” Population and Development Review 29 (2003).
5 R. Lesthaeghe, “A Century of Demographic and Cultural Change in Western Europe: An Exploration of Underlying Dimensions,” Population and Development Review 9 (1983), P. McDonald, Families in Australia: A Socio-Demographic Perspective (Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies, 1995), D. Popenoe, “Cohabitation, Marriage, and Child Well-Being: A Cross-National Perspective,” (New Brunswick, NJ: The National Marriage Project, 2008).
6 A. Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today (New York: Knopf, 2009), S. Coontz, Marriage: A History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: The Penguin Group, 2005), W. J. Goode, World Change in Divorce Patterns (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), Heuveline, Timberlake, and Furstenberg, “Shifting Childrearing to Single Mothers: Results from 17 Western Countries.”
7 T. Castro Martin, “Consensual Unions in Latin America: Persistence of a Dual Nuptiality System,” Journal of Comparative Family Systems 33 (2002).
8 D. Downey, “When Bigger Is Not Better: Family Size, Parental Resources, and Children’s Educational Performance,” American Sociological Review 60, no. 5 (1995).
9 D. Downey and D. Condron, “Playing Well with Others in Kindergarten: The Benefit of Siblings at Home,” Journal of Marriage & Family 66, no. 2 (2004).
10 A. Adsera and A. Menendez, “Fertility Changes in Latin America in Periods of Economic Uncertainty,” Population Studies 65, no. 1 (2011).
11 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “Doing Better for Families.”
12 Social Trends Institute, “The Sustainable Demographic Dividend” (Barcelona: Social Trends Institute, 2011).
13 Susan Brown, “Marriage and Child Well-Being: Research and Policy Perspectives,” Journal of Marriage and Family 72 (2010), Martin, “Consensual Unions in Latin America: Persistence of a Dual Nuptiality System.”, W. Bradford Wilcox, “Why Marriage Matters: 30 Conclusions from the Social Sciences,” (New York: Institute for American Values/National Marriage Project, 2010).
14 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “Doing Better for Families.”