Families are changing but here to stay

The traditional family unit is not what it once was Schweiz Tourismus

International Day of Families is being celebrated this weekend at a time when the traditional concept of the family is changing.

This content was published on May 14, 2004 - 20:01

In Switzerland the marriage and birth rate is down, while the number of divorces and single people have increased.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the United Nations International Year of the Family in 1994.

The UN says the day, held on May 15, is intended to reflect the importance that international communities attach to families as basic units of society.

But experts say that the traditional family – a married couple with children – is losing ground in Switzerland.

Recent statistics show that more than four in ten marriages now end in divorce and that 35 per cent of households are made up of single people, compared to just 14 per cent in 1960.

The number of children is falling as well. In 1960 half of all households had children, compared to one in three nowadays.

Phase of change

“It’s true that there are fewer marriages, it is easier to get divorced and we are having fewer children,” said Beat Fux from the Institute of Sociology at Zurich University.

“But the family isn’t destined to disappear completely, it’s just in a phase of change,” he told swissinfo.

New types of family are appearing such as the patchwork family, which brings together children from previous unions, or families formed by homosexual couples, which are slowly gaining in acceptance in Europe.

And Fux says that, despite the changes, people still regard family as very important.

“Swiss and European statistics show that families are at the top of personal priorities, clearly in front of work, religion or friendship,” he said.

Childless Swiss

Although surveys show that the Swiss would like to have, on average, 2.2 children, the current birth rate stands at just 1.4 children per woman.

Jacqueline Fehr, vice-president of family lobby group Pro Familia, says that while there are many reasons for the falling birth rate, the main one is financial.

“If you ask Swiss couples why they don’t have any children, normally they reply it’s because they can’t afford it or they can’t combine working and family life,” Fehr told swissinfo.

According to the Swiss Federal Office for Social Security, the cost of bringing up a child is SFr340,000 ($263,000).

Added to this is the estimated SFr820,000 in lost work and career opportunities for mothers – most often the primary carer.

Inflexible workplace

Compared with other European countries, Switzerland is lagging behind when it comes to helping working mothers.

Experts point to a lack of infrastructure and flexibility in the market place, and underline the absence of maternity leave as well as the lack of crèches and part-time jobs.

“In the working world the most important thing is success,” said Fehr. “And to be successful, you have to always be available and free from any long-lasting and demanding ties.”

“Maternity represents the exact opposite, a very long-term commitment,” she added.

Added to this is the fact that in Switzerland, a large number of those living in poverty are single parent- or large families.

Insufficient family policy

Fehr says that one of the problems in Switzerland is that family policy has been eroded over the past decade.

“Family policy was certainly the biggest loser in the 1990s, during the long period of economic downturn,” the Social Democrat politician told swissinfo.

Fehr added that it was time that the social and economic importance of the family was recognised in Swiss politics.

The package of tax breaks for families, which is being put to the vote on May 16, is a rare example of family policy in recent years.

But for Fux, it does not go far enough.

“Family support is insufficient in all European countries, but in Switzerland, family policy can be considered to be particularly underdeveloped,” he said.

swissinfo, Armando Mombelli (translation: Isobel Leybold)

Key facts

More than 40% of marriages end in divorce in Switzerland.
The birth rate stands at 1.4 children per woman.
24% of women do not have children.
35% of households are single-person.

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In brief

International Day of Families is being marked on May 15, 2004 – the tenth anniversary of the UN Year of the Family.

The day is held to underline the importance that international communities attach to families as basic units of society.

The UN is keen to raise awareness of the issues affecting families and promote ways in which to tackle problems.

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