Family Developments after the 1960s

Austria Table of Contents

Beginning in the 1970s, a number of trends appeared that represented a dramatic change in attitudes toward the ideals of marriage and family. There was a sharp drop in the birth rate and a decrease in family size, accompanied by a greater prevalence of people who never married, people who divorce, single-parent families, cohabitating couples, and marriages without children.

In the early 1990s, fewer Austrian women were bearing children--an estimated 20 to 30 percent will never have a child-- and those who have children are bearing fewer. After the end of the "baby boom" of the early 1960s, the Austrian fertility rate dropped steadily from 2.82 to an all-time low of 1.44 in 1989 (then increased marginally to 1.50 by 1991). Family size has shrunk correspondingly. Marriage without children was twice as common in 1990 (32.9 percent) as in the previous generation, and the number of families having three or more children dropped by more than half (to 10.7 percent). Families having one or two children accounted for roughly one-third and one-fourth of families, respectively, in the early 1990s. Large families are most common among farmers, who have a historical and economic tradition of having many children, and among working-class women having little education.

Between 1970 and 1990, the number of single-parent families increased almost five times faster than the traditional twoparent families. In 1990 there were 235,000 single-parent families in Austria, about 15 percent of all families. Nearly 90 percent of single parents were women. Some of these single-parent households resulted from women's conscious choice to bear children without marrying. More often, however, divorce was the cause; more than one-half of single parents were divorced. About one-third of the single parents were unmarried, and about onetenth were widows or widowers.

One of the consequences of these trends was that the average size of an Austrian household dropped from 2.9 in 1971 to 2.6 persons in 1990 and is expected to drop further. Almost 60 percent of the population lived equally divided between one- and two-person households in 1990. A large number of single-person households result from women's long life expectancy, which causes them to outlive their spouses.

The frequency of marriage has also declined since the 1960s. Of the women born in the late 1930s, only 8 percent remained single, compared with an estimated 25 percent of women born in the 1960s. One reason for the rise in the unmarried population is the increasing number of educated women who have professional and economic alternatives to traditional wife-mother roles. Another reason for the smaller number of marriages is that cohabitation without marriage has become more frequent and socially acceptable.

Austrians are also marrying later. In 1991 the mean age of marriage was 25.6 years for women and 28.0 years for men, an increase over earlier decades. In 1981 about 59 percent of women and 82 percent of men were single between the ages of twenty and twenty-five, compared with 70 percent and almost 90 percent, respectively, at the end of the decade. For those between twentyfive and thirty years of age, the figures showed a similar rise in the numbers of the unmarried--33 percent of women and over 50 percent of men were still single at the end of the decade, compared with 25 percent and 40 percent, respectively, in 1981.

The declining number of marriages is accompanied by an increased frequency of divorce. The divorce rate in Austria increased from 15 percent in the early 1960s to more than 33 percent in the early 1990s. Divorce granted on the basis of "no fault" or mutual consent became legal in Austria in the early 1980s. The divorce rate was highest in Vienna and lowest in Tirol, an indication that traditional and religious values are least binding in urban areas and more persistent in a traditional Alpine setting. Women who are employed outside of the home and have their own sources of income demonstrate a greater readiness to divorce than "traditional wives."

More than one-third of all divorces in Austria occur within the first five years of marriage; thereafter, the frequency of divorce decreases with the length of marriage. In a survey in the early 1990s, more than one-half of people polled identified extramarital sex, selfishness, and inflexibility as the primary causes of divorce.

Illegitimacy has also become more frequent. Beginning in the 1960s, the percentage of illegitimate births increased steadily, from 11.5 percent in 1965 to 25 percent in 1991. For first-born children, the rate was over 33 percent. These figures reflect tolerant attitudes toward illegitimacy in many regions in the Alps where illegitimate children were a traditional aspect of the Alpine agrarian way of life. Wage-laborers and servants within the households of landowning farmers frequently were unable to marry, but their offspring enjoyed a high degree of social acceptance because illegitimacy was common and provided the landowners with the next generation of laborers. Although the traditional agrarian structure of these regions has changed considerably, the tolerance of illegitimacy remains. In other parts of Austria not having comparable traditions, illegitimate birth is not stigmatized to the same extent as it was earlier. More than half of the illegitimate births in Austria are legalized by marriage, and the great majority of second- and third-born children are legitimate. The fact that the social welfare system provides more extensive benefits for single mothers than for married ones also can be interpreted as a financial incentive for initial illegitimacy in some cases.

These changes in Austrian life-style patterns are viewed by some Austrians with great apprehension, and they interpret the increasing rate of illegitimacy, cohabitating, single-parenting, divorcing, and decreasing birth rate as a reflection of a crisis for the traditional religious and social values on which the family is based. However, the diversification of life-styles also can be interpreted as an inevitable consequence of the modernization of a traditional society, as well as part of the development of a more pluralistic society within which no particular life-style enjoys a position of predominance.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress