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 are particularly likely to live in two-parent families 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, Central/South America, and sub-Saharan Africa, but not other regions of the world.
  • Marriage rates are declining in many regions. Adults are most likely to be married in Asia and the Middle East, and are least likely to be married in Central/South America, with Africa, 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 Central/South America.
  • Childbearing rates are declining worldwide. The highest fertility rates are in sub-Saharan Africa. A woman gives birth to an average of 6.1 children in Uganda. Moderate rates of fertility 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 Central/South America and Western Europe, with moderate rates found in North America, Oceania, and Eastern Europe, 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. And the distribution of children across these various types of family living arrangements is changing over time. This report describes such patterns, without bias. The family strengths that are being described in the other indicators in this section can be found in each type of family.

Living with kin is particularly common in much of Asia, the Middle East, Central/South America, and sub-Saharan Africa. As seen in Figure 2, in almost all of the countries in these regions, at least 40 percent of children live in households with other adults besides their parents. In many cases, these adults are extended family members. Indeed, at least half of children live with adults besides their parents in parts of Africa (Democratic Republic of the Congo [58 percent], Ghana [53 percent], Nigeria [57 percent], South Africa [70 percent], and Tanzania [60 percent]); Asia (India [50 percent]); South America (Colombia and Nicaragua [55 percent]); and the Middle East (Turkey [58 percent]). In these regions, then, children are especially likely to be affected by their relationships with other adults in the household, including grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, compared with children living in regions where extended household members played smaller roles in children’s day-to-day lives. Living with adults other than parents can generate benefits for children, but, depending on the circumstances, it can also produce difficulties such as overcrowding, violence, and abuse.2

Whether in nuclear or extended family households, children are especially likely to live with two parents (who could be biological parents or stepparents) 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 two regions live with two parents (ranging from 85 percent in the Philippines and Indonesia to 94 percent in Jordan). About 80 percent of children in European countries live in two-parent households (ranging from 76 percent in the United Kingdom to 89 percent in Italy/Poland). In the Americas, between 62 percent (Colombia) and 78 percent (Canada) of children live in two-parent households. The two-parent pattern is more mixed in sub-Saharan Africa, ranging from 36 percent in South Africa to 76 percent in Nigeria. Some of these children living in two-parent households are also living with extended families, as noted above.

In much of Central/South America and sub-Saharan Africa, children have higher odds of living with either one or neither of their parents than in other regions. Between 13 percent (Nigeria) and 43 percent (South Africa) of children live in single-parent families and from 4 percent (Argentina) to 20 percent (South Africa and Uganda) of children live 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: 11 percent. The high percentage of South African children living with one parent or without either parent—43 percent and 20 percent, respectively—is due in part to the high incidence of AIDS orphans.3

Finally, in North America, Oceania, and Europe, a large minority—about one-fifth—of children live in single-parent households, and less than 7 percent of children lived in households without at least one of their parents. In Eastern Europe, 11 to 15 percent of children live with a lone parent. In these regions, the United States (27 percent), the United Kingdom (24 percent), and New Zealand (24 percent) have particularly high levels of single parenthood. Many European countries have projected the proportion of children living with single parents to grow through 2030.4

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 and extended family members in Asia and the Middle East. Extended families also appear to be more common in Asia, Central/South America and sub-Saharan Africa. A relatively large minority of children are living with single parents or with no parents in the household in Central/South America and sub-Saharan Africa. A relatively large minority of children also live with one parent in Western Europe, North America, and Oceania.




Marriage and Cohabitation

The nature, function, and firsthand experience of marriage vary 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.5 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.6

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 some parts of the world.7 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 as 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, or simply unnecessary once they are cohabiting.8

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. The prevalence of partnerships of either type is presented first, followed by a discussion of cohabitation and marriage separately.

Figure 4 provides information compiled from censuses and surveys conducted in 43 of the 49 selected countries, primarily in the mid-2000s. In most countries throughout the world, between 50 and 75 percent of adults of reproductive age are in either marital or cohabiting relationships. Exceptionally low rates of partnership are found in South Africa, Chile, and Singapore, where less than half of adults are cohabiting or married. In contrast, adults in India, Indonesia, and Egypt are most likely to be partnered. More than three-quarters of 18- to 49-year-olds in these countries are cohabiting or married.

The prevalence of partnerships is generally highest in Asia (with the exception of Singapore) and the Middle East, ranging from 55 (Israel) to 80 percent (Egypt). Rates of partnership are more moderate in sub-Saharan Africa, where they range from 61 (Ghana) to 70 percent (Uganda) when excluding South Africa’s worldwide low rate. Partnership rates are also moderate in Eastern Europe, where they range from 57 (Poland) to 67 percent (Romania and Russia). Partnerships are least prominent in the Americas, Oceania, and Western Europe, where between 49 (Chile) and 67 (Bolivia) percent of adults are cohabiting or married. The following sections look at whether these partnerships are through marriage or cohabitation.


– Means the data for cohabitation was not available


Adults aged 18 to 49 are most likely to be married in Asia and the Middle East, and are least likely to be married in Central/South America. Marriage levels fall in the moderate range (about half) in most of Europe, Oceania, and North America. Moreover, the data show that a larger percentage of adults are cohabiting in Europe and the Americas than in other regions.

As Figure 4 shows, between 47 (Singapore) and 77 percent (India) of the adult population in the Asian countries in our study are married, and marriage is even more common in the Middle East, where a clear majority of adults (between 55 [Israel] and 80 [Egypt] percent) are married.

By contrast, marriage patterns fall in the middle range, or are less consistent, in the Americas, Europe, and sub-Saharan Africa. In North America and Oceania, about half of 18- to 49-year old adults are married, ranging from 43 (Canada) to 63 percent (Mexico). Notably, the percentage of adults married in the United States fell from 52 percent in 2005 to 45 percent in 2010. In the sub-Saharan African countries studied, marriage patterns show a great deal of variation, with between 30 (South Africa) and 66 percent (Nigeria) of adults aged 18-49 married. Indeed, South Africa has one of the lowest marriage rates of any country included in our study, and the very lowest proportion of adults in unions (married or cohabiting) of any country was found in South Africa with just 43 percent of adults in unions. Among the European countries, between 37 (Sweden) and 60 percent (Romania) of adults aged 18-49 are married, with marriage clearly being more common in Eastern Europe. By contrast, in Central/South America, generally, less than half of adults are married, with the exception of Costa Rica and Paraguay; in Colombia, the proportion of married adults is a worldwide low 20 percent.

Figure 4 indicates that cohabitation is rare in Asia and the Middle East, two regions where relatively traditional mores still dominate family life. Moderate to high levels of cohabitation are found in North America and Oceania, where between 9 (United States) and 19 percent (Canada) of adults aged 18-49 are in cohabiting relationships. Levels of cohabitation in sub-Saharan Africa vary considerably, with relatively high levels of cohabitation in Uganda (25 percent) and low levels in Ethiopia (4 percent), Nigeria (2 percent), and Kenya (4 percent).

There are also high levels of cohabitation in much of Europe. For example, about one-quarter of Swedish and French adults aged 18-49 are living in a cohabiting relationship. Cohabitation is most common among South Americans, where consensual unions have played a longstanding role in South American society.9 Between 12 (Chile) and 38 percent (Peru) of adults aged 18-49 live in cohabiting unions in South America, with Peru 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—are more common in Europe and Central/South America. North America, Oceania, and sub-Saharan Africa fall in between. Both cultural and economic forces may help to account for these regional differences.

It remains to be seen, however, how the place of marriage in society and the increasing popularity of cohabitation in many regions 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.10 Alternatively, some research suggests that children who grow up without siblings lose out on important social experiences and are at-risk for weight issues.11,12 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. Data are for 2011 and come from the United Nations Population Division. These data indicate that large families are most common in sub-Saharan Africa, where the total fertility rate (TFR) ranges from 2.4 children per woman in South Africa to 6.1 per woman in Uganda. Fertility is also comparatively high in the Middle East, ranging from a TFR of 2.1 in Turkey to a TFR of 3.0 in Jordan.



In the Americas and Oceania, fertility rates are now close to or slightly below the replacement level of 2.1. This means that women in most countries in these regions are having enough children for the population to replace itself from one generation to the next. For instance, the TFR was 2.0 in Australia, 1.8 in Chile, 2.3 in Mexico, and 2.1 in the United States. It is worth noting that fertility has fallen markedly in Central/South America in the last four decades, which is one reason that fertility rates there (which range from a TFR of 1.8 in Brazil, Chile, and Costa Rica to 3.3 in Bolivia) now come close to paralleling those in North America and Oceania.13

Fertility rates in Europe have increased since their lows in the early 2000s, but generally remain below the replacement level.14 Ireland has a replacement level TFR of 2.1, but the TFRs for all other countries in this region fall 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 ranges from 3.1 (Philippines) to 1.1 (Taiwan).15 Indeed, no country in East Asia has a fertility rate higher than 1.6. The long-term consequences of such low fertility—both for the children themselves and for the societies they live in—remain to be seen.

Tracking nonmarital childbearing is important because, in many societies, children whose parents are not married are more likely to experience instability in their parents’ union, and are less likely to have positive outcomes in many areas of life, from social behavior to academic performance.16

Nonmarital childbearing refers to the percentage of births that are to unmarried women, whether or not they are in a nonmarital relationship. Data for this indicator are from both surveys and official registration data. It is especially important to use caution when comparing rates for this indicator, as these two types of sources are very different. For more information on sources, see the e-ppendix.

Figure 5 indicates that rates of nonmarital childbearing are highest in Central/South America, followed by those in much of Northern and Western Europe. In South America, well over half of children are born to unmarried mothers, with Colombia registering the highest levels (84 percent).17 In much of Europe, between one-third and half of children are born outside of marriage, whereas in France and Sweden, more than 50 percent of children are. In many European countries, the average age at first childbirth is now lower than the average age at first marriage.18



Nonmarital childbearing is also common in Oceania and North America. In these regions, about four in 10 children are born outside of marriage, with rates ranging from 27 (Canada) to 55 percent (Mexico), with the U.S. at 41 percent. By contrast, trends in nonmarital childbearing are quite varied in sub-Saharan Africa, ranging from a low of 6 percent in Nigeria to a high of 63 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 are born to unmarried parents), nonmarital childbearing is 5 percent or less in these two regions. Not surprisingly, these patterns track closely with the marriage trends identified above in Figure 4; that is, where marriage is prevalent, the proportion of children born outside of marriage is smaller.

2  K. Kopko, “The Effects of the Physical Environment on Children’s Development” (Ithica, NY: Cornell Department of Human Development, n.d.); G. Morantz et al., “Child Abuse and Neglect among Orphaned Children and Youth Living in Extended Families in Sub-Saharan Africa: What Have We Learned from Qualitative Inquiry?,” Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies: An International Interdisciplinary Journal for Research, Policy and Care 8, no. 4 (2013).
3  N. R. Matshalaga and G. Powell, “Mass Orphanhood in the Era of HIV/AIDS” British Medical Journal 324, no. 7331  (2002); A. J. McMichael et al., “Mortality Trends and Setbacks: Global Convergence or Divergence,” Lancet 363, no. 9415 (2004).
4  Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “Doing Better for Families,” (OECD, 2011).
5   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. Goode, World Revolution and Family Patterns (New York: Free Press, 1963).
6  Chapais, Primeval Kinship: How Pair Bonding Gave Birth to Human Society; P. Heuveline, J. Timberlake, and F. Furstenberg Jr., “Shifting Childrearing to Single Mothers: Results from 17 Western Countries,” Population and Development Review 29, no. 1 (2003).
R. Lesthaeghe, “A Century of Demographic and Cultural Change in Western Europe: An Exploration of Underlying Dimensions,” Population and Development Review 9, no. 3 (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).
8  A. Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today (New York: Knopf, 2009); M. Pollard and K. Harris, “Cohabitation and Marriage Intensity: Consolidation, Intimacy, and Commitment,” in Working Papers (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Labor and Population, 2013); S. Coontz, Marriage: A History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: The Penguin Group, 2005); W. 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.”
9  Teresa Castro Martin, “Consensual Unions in Latin America: Persistence of a Dual Nuptiality System,” Journal of Comparative Family Systems 33, no. 1 (2002).
10  D. Downey, “When Bigger Is Not Better: Family Size, Parental Resources, and Children’s Educational Performance,” American Sociological Review 60, no. 5 (1995).
11   D. Downey and D. Condron, “Playing Well with Others in Kindergarten: The Benefit of Siblings at Home,” Journal of Marriage and Family 66, no. 2 (2004).
12   A. Chen and J. Escarce, “Family Structure and Childhood Obesity, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Kindergarten Cohort,” Preventing Chronic Disease 7, no. 3 (2010).
13  A. Adsera and A. Menendez, “Fertility Changes in Latin America in Periods of Economic Uncertainty,” Population Studies 65, no. 1 (201).
14  Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “Doing Better for Families.”
15   Social Trends Institute, “The Sustainable Demographic Dividend” (Barcelona: Social Trends Institute, 2011).
16   S. Brown, “Marriage and Child Well-Being: Research and Policy Perspectives,” Journal of Marriage and Family 72, no. 5 (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).
17  Argentina appears to be an exception, but their nonmarital birth rate does not include births to consensual unions.
18  Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “Doing Better for Families.”