Family Structure

Key Findings: Children’s lives are influenced by the resources and care provided by parents, siblings, and other adults 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 regions, 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. They 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, are common in Asia, the Middle East, Central/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 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 prevalent among couples in Europe, North America, Oceania, and, to an especially high degree, Central/South America.
  • Childbearing rates are declining worldwide. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest fertility rates of any region; for instance, in Nigeria, a woman gives birth to an average of 6.0 children over her lifetime. Moderate rates of fertility are found in the Middle East, while the Americas and Oceania have levels of fertility that are sufficient to replace, but not expand, a country’s population in the next generation (about 2.1). Below-replacement-level fertility is widespread in East Asia and Europe.
  • Amid the decline in marriage rates, childbearing outside of marriage—or nonmarital childbearing—is increasing in many regions. Central/South America and Western Europe have the world’s highest rates of nonmarital childbearing, with moderate rates found in North America, Oceania, and Eastern Europe. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa display varying rates of nonmarital childbearing, and the lowest rates are found in Asia and the Middle East.

Living Arrangements

Family living arrangements—how many parents are present in the household and whether the household includes other relatives—shape the character and contexts of children’s lives and influence the human resources available to them. 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. The family strengths that are described in a subsequent section can be found in each type of family.

The regional patterns identified in this section suggest that children are especially likely to live with two parents and with extended family members in Asia and the Middle East. Extended families are likewise more common in Central/South America and sub-Saharan Africa, but in these two regions a relatively large minority of children’s households contain a single parent or no parents. A sizeable minority of children also live with one parent in Western Europe, North America, and Oceania.

Living with kin is particularly common in much of Asia, the Middle East, Central/South America, and sub-Saharan Africa. In almost all of the countries in these regions, at least 40 percent of children live in households that include adults besides their parents, as Figure 2 shows. 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 (65 percent in Ghana, 60 percent in Nigeria, 70 percent in South Africa, and 60 percent in Tanzania); Asia (50 percent in India); South America (55 percent in Colombia and Nicaragua); and the Middle East (58 percent in Turkey). Notably, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the percentage of children who live with additional adults dropped from 58 percent in 2007 to 49 percent in 2013 to 2014. In these regions, then, children are especially likely to be affected by their relationships with non-parental adults such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, compared with children living in regions where extended family members play smaller roles in their 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 It can also result from difficulties such as poverty, orphanhood, and parental incarceration.3

Whether in nuclear or extended family households, children are most apt to live with two parents (who could be biological parents, adoptive parents, or stepparents) in Asia and the Middle East. See Figure 3. According to the data available for the specific countries examined in these regions, more than 80 percent of children in Asia and the Middle East live with two parents, ranging from 85 percent in the Philippines and Indonesia to 94 percent in Jordan. Similarly, about 80 percent of children in European countries—from 76 percent in the United Kingdom to 89 percent in Italy and Poland—live in two-parent households. In the Americas, two-parent households are somewhat less prevalent: between 62 percent (Colombia) and 78 percent (Canada) of children are part of two-parent homes. The two-parent pattern is more mixed in sub-Saharan Africa, ranging widely from 36 percent in South Africa to 78 percent in Nigeria. Some of the children living with two parents are in households that also include extended family, 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 children in other regions. Between 12 percent (Nigeria) and 43 percent (South Africa) of children in these regions live with a single parent, and between 4 percent (Argentina) and 20 percent (South Africa and Uganda) of them live in homes without either of their parents. Among the South American countries in this study, 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—reflects the legacy of AIDS, which left many children orphaned,4 and of apartheid, which produced high rates of labor migration.5

Finally, in North America, Oceania, and Europe, a substantial minority—about one-fifth—of children live in single-parent households, and less than 6 percent of kids live 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) exhibit particularly high levels of single parenthood. Many European countries have projected that the proportion of children living with single parents will grow through 2030.6

The experiences of children growing up with one parent are diverse around the world. For example, previous editions of the World Family Map have shown that children in low-income countries living with one parent don’t necessarily have negative experiences, and living with one parent appears to be associated with benefits for some children when it comes to education.





– Means the data for cohabitation were not available

Marriage and Cohabitation

The nature, function, and everyday experience of marriage vary tremendously around the world. Marriage looks and feels different in Sweden than it does in Saudi Arabia; in China, compared with Canada; and in Argentina, compared with Australia. Nevertheless, across time and space, in most societies, marriage has been an important institution for structuring adults’ intimate relationships and connecting parents to one another and to any children that they have together.7 In particular, in many countries, marriage has played an important role in providing a stable context for bearing children, rearing them, and integrating fathers into their lives.8

However, today, the hold of the institution of marriage over the adult life course and the connection between marriage and parenthood differ significantly from one country to another. Dramatic increases in the prevalence of cohabitation, divorce, and nonmarital childbearing in the Americas, Europe, and Oceania over the last four decades suggest that the institution of marriage is becoming less relevant in these regions than in other regions.9 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 their and their children’s survival. Cohabitation has emerged as a common precursor or alternative to marriage in many countries for any number of reasons. Adults may look for more flexibility or freedom in their relationships than marriage seems to offer, 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.10

Amid these changing patterns and perceptions, this section of the World Family Map measures the prevalence of marriage and cohabitation among adults in their prime childbearing and child-rearing years (18 to 49) around the globe. First we document the prevalence of the two forms of partnership combined, and then we discuss cohabitation and marriage separately.

Figure 4 displays information on adult partnerships compiled from censuses and surveys conducted around 2010 in 45 of the 49 selected countries. In most countries throughout the world, between 50 and 70 percent of adults of reproductive age are in either marital or cohabiting relationships. Exceptionally low levels of partnerships are found in South Africa and Chile, where less than half of adults are cohabiting or married. On the opposite side of the spectrum, more than 70 percent of 18- to 49-year-olds in India, the Philippines, and Uganda are partnered.

Partnerships are generally most prevalent in Asia and the Middle East, ranging from 50 (Taiwan) to 78 percent (Philippines). The figures are more moderate in sub-Saharan Africa, where—excluding South Africa, where adults are more likely to be single than anywhere else in the world—between 51 percent (Nigeria) and 70 percent (Uganda) of reproductive-age adults are partnered. Similarly, Eastern Europe shows partnership levels from 57 (Hungary) to 65 percent (Romania). Partnerships are least prominent in the Americas, Oceania, and Western Europe, where between 49 percent (Chile) and 67 percent (Bolivia) of adults are cohabiting or married.



– Means the data for cohabitation were 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. In fact, cohabitation is such a sensitive topic in these regions that some surveys do not ask about it. North America and Oceania exhibit moderate to high levels of cohabitation: Between 9 percent (New Zealand) and 19 percent (Canada) of adults aged 18 to 49 are in cohabiting relationships in these regions. Levels of cohabitation in sub-Saharan Africa vary considerably; they are relatively high in Uganda (25 percent) and low in Ethiopia (4 percent), Kenya (4 percent), and Nigeria (3 percent).

Levels of cohabitation are elevated in much of Western Europe. For example, about one-quarter of Swedish and French adults aged 18 to 49 are living in cohabiting relationships. Cohabitation is most common, however, among South Americans, where consensual unions—long-term cohabiting relationships, often involving childbearing, that may or may not ever lead to legal marriage—have played a longstanding role in society.11 Between 20 percent (Chile) and 35 percent (Colombia) of reproductive-age adults are part of cohabiting unions in South America, with Colombia registering the highest level of cohabitation of any country in our global study.

In general, marriage is more common in Asia and the Middle East than in other regions, 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.

While the prevalence of marriage varies widely, marriage is on the decline in almost all regions of the world, and in some regions cohabitation is becoming more prevalent. The proportion of adults who are married declined by about seven percentage points in South Korea and Taiwan from the mid-2000s to the early 2010s. The percentage of reproductive-age adults who were married in Egypt dropped from 80 percent in 2008 to 64 percent in 2013. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, married adults accounted for 60 percent of the adult population in 2007 versus 51 percent in 2013 while, at the same time, the proportion cohabiting increased from 8 percent to 14 percent. In Argentina, the percentage married dropped from 35 percent in 2006 to 28 percent in 2013. Australia also saw a drop from 50 percent in 2005 to 43 percent in 2012. In Germany, Spain, Sweden, and Russia between the mid-2000s and the early 2010s, the proportion married dropped an average of approximately 10 percentage points. Meanwhile, cohabitation became more prevalent in Spain, doubling in popularity from 7 percent of the adult population in 2007 to 14 percent in 2011. The only country where marriage has become more common in recent years is Turkey, where it rose from 61 percent in 2007 to 67 percent in 2011. It remains to be seen how the changing 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.12 On the other hand, some research suggests that children who grow up without siblings lose out on important social experiences and face an elevated risk of weight issues.13,14 How, then, is region linked to family size around the globe?

Table 1 presents each nation’s total fertility rate (TFR) in 2013 (the average number of children each woman of childbearing age is expected to have over the course of her lifetime) as a proxy for family size. The data, which come from the United Nations Population Division, indicate that large families predominate in sub-Saharan Africa, where the total fertility rate ranges from 2.4 children per woman in South Africa to 6.0 per woman in Nigeria. Amid a falling global TFR, in recent years Ethiopia and Nigeria have both experienced growth in their fertility rates (TFRs increasing by half a child). Fertility also remains comparatively high in the Middle East, ranging from a TFR of 2.0 in Qatar and Turkey to one of 3.2 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, rather than expand or shrink, from one generation to the next. For instance, the TFR is 1.9 in Australia, 1.8 in Chile, 2.2 in Mexico, and 2.0 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 there (which range from a TFR of 1.8 in Brazil, Chile, and Costa Rica to 3.2 in Bolivia) come close to paralleling those in North America and Oceania.15

Fertility rates in Europe have rebounded somewhat from their lows in the early 2000s, but remain below replacement level in all of the countries we investigated; their TFRs are between 1.4 and 2.0.16 Eastern Europe exhibits particularly low fertility, with TFRs of 1.4 and 1.5.

Finally, fertility rates in Asia vary substantially, to the point where the TFR ranges from 1.1 (Taiwan) to 3.0 (Philippines), and have fallen dramatically in recent years, especially in East Asia.17 Indeed, no East Asian country has a fertility rate that exceeds 1.7. This below-replacement fertility has caused concerns and drawn international media attention. The long-term consequences of such low fertility—both for the children themselves and for the societies they live in—are uncertain.

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.18

Nonmarital childbearing refers to the percentage of babies that are born to unmarried women, whether or not the women are in a nonmarital relationship. Data for this indicator are drawn from both surveys and official registration data. Because these two types of sources are very different, it is vital to use caution when comparing rates for this indicator. For more information on sources, see the e-appendix.

As Figure 5 indicates, Central/South America is home to the world’s most elevated rates of nonmarital childbearing, followed by 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).19 In much of Europe, between one-third and half of children are born outside of marriage, and in France and Sweden, more than 50 percent of children are. In many European countries, the average age at first marriage now exceeds the average age at first childbirth.20



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 33 percent (Australia and Canada) to 55 percent (Mexico), with the U.S. at 41 percent. By contrast, rates of nonmarital childbearing are wide-ranging in sub-Saharan Africa, from a low of 7 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 43 percent of children are born to unmarried parents, the nonmarital childbearing rate is 5 percent or lower in these two regions. Not surprisingly, these patterns track closely with the marriage trends identified in Figure 4; that is, where marriage is more prevalent, the proportion of children born outside of marriage is smaller.

2 K. Kopko, “The Effects of the Physical Environment on Children’s Development” (Ithaca, 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 K. Beegle, D. Filmer, A. Stokes, and L. Tiererova, “Orphanhood and the Living Arrangements of Children in Sub-Saharan Africa,” The World Bank Policy Research Working Paper (2009); M. Kreidl and B. Hubatková, “Does Co-residence with Grandparents Reduce the Negative Association Between Sibship Size and Reading Test Scores?,” Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, (2014); K. Turney, “The Intergenerational Consequences of Mass Incarceration: Implications for Children’s Co-residence and Contact with Grandparents,” Social Forces (2014).
4 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).
5 R. Smit, “The Impact of Labor Migration on African Families in South Africa: Yesterday and Today,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 32, no. 4 (2001).
6 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “Doing Better for Families,” OECD, 2011.
7 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).
8 Chapais, Primeval Kinship; P. Heuveline, J. M. Timberlake, and F. F. Furstenberg Jr., “Shifting Childrearing to Single Mothers: Results from 17 Western Countries,” Population and Development Review 29, no. 1 (2003).
9 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).
10 A. Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today (New York: Knopf, 2009); M. Pollard and K. M. Harris, “Cohabitation and Marriage Intensity: Consolidation, Intimacy, and Commitment,” working paper (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Labor and Population, 2013); Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Penguin Group, 2005); W. J. Goode, World Change in Divorce Patterns (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993); Heuveline et al., “Shifting Childrearing to Single Mothers.”
11 T. C. Martin, “Consensual Unions in Latin America: Persistence of a Dual Nuptiality System,” Journal of Comparative Family Systems 33, no. 1 (2002).
12 D. B. Downey, “When Bigger Is Not Better: Family Size, Parental Resources, and Children’s Educational Performance,” American Sociological Review 60, no. 5 (1995).
13 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).
14 A. Y. Chen and J. J. Escarce, “Family Structure and Childhood Obesity, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Kindergarten Cohort,” Preventing Chronic Disease 7, no. 3 (2010).
15 A. Adsera and A. Menendez, “Fertility Changes in Latin America in Periods of Economic Uncertainty,” Population Studies 65, no. 1 (2011).
16 OECD, “Doing Better for Families.”
17 Social Trends Institute, “The Sustainable Demographic Dividend” (Barcelona: Social Trends Institute, 2011).
18 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”; W. B. Wilcox et al., “Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences” (New York: Institute for American Values/National Marriage Project, 2010).
19 Argentina appears to be an exception, but their nonmarital birth rate excludes births to women in consensual (nonmarital) unions.
20 OECD, “Doing Better for Families.”