News Release

People born in the 80s not likely to marry their first cohabiting partner

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University College London

Published today in Advances in Life Course Research, the peer-reviewed study, used data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) and the Understanding Society study (UKHLS). The study sample contained 3,233 individuals from three birth cohorts: 1974-1979, 1980-1984 and 1985-1990, who were observed between 1991 and 2016 and were aged between 16 and 27.

The research team from UCL and the University of St Andrews found that the 70s cohort had a 50/50 chance of splitting or staying (or marrying) their first partner. The youngest cohort was significantly more likely to separate from their partners than to marry them.

When looking at how long people stayed together, within the two oldest cohorts, 25%-27% of couples had separated within two years from the start of cohabitation. This figure is 43% in the youngest cohort suggesting that first cohabiting partnerships have become less stable and do not last as long among younger generations.

Overall, the findings suggests that adults born in the 1980s in the UK are more likely to move in with a first partner later in their life than those born in the mid- and late 70s. The authors say find that living with someone (rather than marriage) has become an almost universal form of first partnership regardless of socio-economic background or educational level.

Lead author, Dr Alina Pelikh (IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education & Society) said: “Our findings suggest that compared to older cohorts, first cohabiting relationships among millennials do not tend to last long. This raises interesting questions on the meaning young people attach to cohabitation and the quality of these partnerships which tend to be short-lived.

“While among older cohorts first co-residential partnerships were likely to be treated as trial marriages, young adults born in the 1980s could be more likely to move together for different reasons - the lack of normative constraints, convenience, and economic reasons are all likely and potentially intertwined underlying factors of this phenomenon.

“Alternatively, it could be that young adults in the youngest cohorts (and especially at young ages) see living together as an alternative to being single and it is not until later ages when they consider marriage or marriage-like long-term cohabitation.” 

The findings also show that parental background and socio-economic status as well as individual education levels still play a role in shaping young people’s partnerships in Britain. The study found a positive link between education levels and the transition from cohabitation to marriage for cohorts born between 1974-1979, suggesting that education contributes to partnership stability. In contrast, among those born in the 1980s, more highly educated people are more likely to move in with a partner. However, levels of education do not affect the stability of these partnerships as they almost universally end in separation.

Co-author of the study, Dr Júlia Mikolai (University of St Andrews and ESRC Centre for Population Change) explained: “This could be a sign of the emergence of a new behaviour such as short-lived relationships starting while in education or shortly after finishing a degree. Postponement of first partnership formation among those not pursuing further education could also be a marker of the increased economic hardship and uncertainties.”

Co-author of the study, Professor Hill Kulu (University of St Andrews and ESRC Centre for Population Change) added: “Our findings provide further evidence towards the increasing complexity of partnership transitions among millennials with many postponing cohabitation and being less likely to marry their first partner and more individuals experiencing multiple partnerships.”

The authors highlight that because the paper only considered those who formed their first partnerships before age 27 there may be a non-negligible proportion who entered into partnerships after this age. While they do not expect this to affect the overall rates of first partnership formation, it might reveal some new findings, if the first partnerships of those beyond age 27 turn out to be more stable.

This research was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council and the ESRC Centre for Population Change.

Notes to Editors

For more information or to speak to the researchers involved, please contact: Rowan Walker, UCL Media Relations. T: +44 (0)20 3108 8515 / +44 (0)7986 463767, E:

A Pelikh, J Mikolai, Hill Kulu “Make Up or Break Up? Partnership Transitions among Young Adults in England and Wales” will be published at 00.01UK time on Thursday 31 March and is under strict embargo until this time.

The DOI will be: 10.1016/j.alcr.2022.100475

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About the ESRC Centre for Population Change (CPC)

CPC was established in January 2009. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), tasked with investigating how and why our population is changing and what this means for people, communities and governments. The Centre is a joint partnership between the Universities of Southampton, St. Andrews, and Stirling. Our research agenda is planned in collaboration with the Office for National Statistics and the National Records of Scotland. CPC is a founding partner of Population Europe, the network of Europe's leading research centres in the field of policy-relevant population studies. The Centre is directed by Professor Jane Falkingham OBE, with co-Directors Professor Maria Evandrou, Professor Alison Bowes and Professor Hill Kulu. | Twitter @CPCPopulation

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). ESRC is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. They support independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and civil society. At any one time ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. 

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government. It is a new organisation that brings together the UK’s seven research councils, Innovate UK and Research England to maximise the contribution of each council and create the best environment for research and innovation to flourish.

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