Social Matters in Germany

“Where There Are Children, There Is Family” – Interview with the family sociologist Jürgen Dorbritz

Familie; © Colourbox.comFamily; © Colourbox.comHow has the role of the family been made over by the sweeping social changes of the past twenty years in East and West? spoke about these questions with Dr. Jürgen Dorbritz of the Federal Institute for Population Research.

Dr. Dorbritz, how is the family doing?

Like the social system, it has seamlessly adapted to changed social conditions. Those who assume the classical father-mother-child family won’t of course like the plurality of ways of life that has developed. All the same, among couples between 35 and 40 years of age, most are still married and have children. Marriage, however, no longer plays so important a role as in the past. Whether a couple is married, live together outside marriage, are separated or whatever – adults and children are living together, and today that’s “family”.

What do young people understand today by “family”

They still have an ideal-typical vision of their own future with marriage and a happy family despite all the social changes. You can see this in the fact that for many young people today the wedding is a huge event, which is celebrated to the hilt. Yet with respect to others, they are tolerant: children without a committed partnership, cohabitation with children – that doesn’t bother anybody. Who talks any more of an “illegitimate” child? If you ask people under 25 whether children and marriage belong together, only a third answers in the affirmative. But most reject the statement that marriage is an outdated institution.

Falling in love, celebrating engagement, marrying?

Two hearts, one soul; © Colourbox.comSo lots of marriages, but children later or not at all?

What we’ve observed is that a certain automatism, which was still firmly anchored in the 1960s, has completely dissolved. People falling in love, celebrating their engagement, marrying, having children and bringing them up on a partnership basis – this sequence is gone.

Are there still differences among European countries where religion still plays a more important role than others?

Yes. In Poland, Spain and Italy a different image of the family prevails than, for example, in the Scandinavian states. In Sweden, everyone is taxed regardless of family status; there’s no special support for families, let alone something like the German tax advantage for couples. The divorce rate in Catholic countries is lower, marriages are less frequently childless and single parents have a harder time of it.

There never really was an socialist image of the family

Dr. Jürgen Dorbritz; Photo: privateHow does it look in post-socialist states – the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Poland?

To begin with, it should be noted that there never really was an Eastern European socialist image of the family. In all these countries, women’s employment was very high. That was seen as the road to equality. Correspondingly, the child care system was extensively developed. Now, after the collapse of the socialist economic systems, up to 50 percent of manufacturing jobs have been lost. The result: the women were the first to be laid off and re-assigned to their traditional role as housewife – that couldn’t go well. And there was something else: in the socialist systems the family functioned as a community of solidarity. It scraped together what was lacking: if the grocery shop had Cuban oranges, one family member queued up for all the others, and if the brother-in-law could get hubcaps for the trabi the family was happy. That’s gone. In many former socialist countries families today live on the poverty line because they can no longer make ends meet with only a single income.

But what do young people in these countries think about the family?

There’s a survey from 2006 which shows that, in Poland and Lithuania, the wish for a family is one of the goals of life with a very high priority. Preferred is the model of the “complete” nuclear family, with married parents and children. But like their Western contemporaries, these young people are open and tolerant of non-marital ways of life. The difference is that they see this as a “trial marriage”, and above all that when there are children it ought to lead to marriage.

Where adults live together without children, there’s no family

Two men holding hands; © Colourbox.comNothing more seems to be permanent – job, income, social status. What are the chances of the family surviving?

For sociology today, that’s only a question of definition: where two generations are living together, there’s family. Or, as politicians put it: Where there are children, there is family. The forms of living together are changing constantly; today same-sex couples, bi-local couples distributed over two households and weekend couples live together with children. Conversely, however, this also means that where adults live together without children, there’s no family – and that should to be taken into account for tax purposes.

Will we be seeing partners entering into marriage-like arrangements for limited periods?

I don’t think so. If you opt for a life together, you don’t have the end in view but rather ideals, the longing for security, mutual understanding, love. Though a third of such partnerships end in divorce, in the beginning they all want it to work for a lifetime.

Will there still be father-mother-child families in 20 or 30 years? I’m firmly convinced there will be. In their traditional form they’ll no longer be defining for living together, as they still were in the 1960s and 70s, but they’ll remain one among several eligible forms of living together.

Volker Thomas
conducted the interview. He is a freelance journalist based in Berlin and runs an agency for texts and design (

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
November 2012

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