British social trends have changed over decades. With a decline in the institution of marriage, the number of marriages has hit an all-time low. Fewer people were getting married in 2009 than in any year since figures started to be recorded in 1895. On top of this, the average marriage age is rising rapidly. British woman are now marrying late; in 2011 their average age was 30, whereas it was 25.5 in 1991 and 23.1 in 1991. The same thing is happening with men; the average age for them was 32.1 years in 2009, compared to 25.4 in 1981.
There are no reliable figures for faith communities. But it is believed that there is an adverse domino effect of this social reality on all the faith communities. Although marriage still remains a solid institution for orthodox communities, the average age of marriage has gone up for most religious communities. I have observed this with some interest in Muslim communities from my personal experiences over decades. The average age of marriage for Muslim men and women, especially from the educated middle class, has risen significantly. I personally know many young men and women who have crossed 30 and are still single. Careerism, change of lifestyle, unrealistic expectations from spouses, increasing costs of weddings, etc, are among some key factors.
Due to dominant social trends we are all becoming increasingly individualistic and getting ever weaker in the ethos of compromise with our dear ones, especially with our spouses. Commercialisation is eating away at our need for long term higher objectives of life; over-sexualisation is adversely affecting the youth and pressuring us to look for one's external look, rather than inner worth, particularly from the opposite sex. In our rights-based society, some parental rights such as giving moral guidance to children have been sacrificed in the name of children's rights. Rights and responsibilities are intertwined and should be seen as a whole, but we sometimes tilt the balance disproportionately.
We have made unprecedented scientific and technological progress in recent decades, but at the same time we are experiencing a dwindling moral compass, with many social norms thrown into turmoil. We are gradually losing our spiritual anchor and age-old tradition of holding together in families and communities; this is happening without due consideration of the consequences.
This change of social reality worries people of faith. The weakening of the institution of marriage is a major concern to many. In modern-day developed societies this may raise eyebrows among many, as the very idea of marriage, traditional family values and parental roles are now seen as signs of backwardness. But we must not forget these issues are at the heart of a society and cannot be ignored. Without a delicate balance in our family and social life we may go down the slippery slope of creating incurable problems.
Like life's other realities, marriage-based family is not trouble-free but it has been the cornerstone and oldest of human institution. Through the extended family structure in the past and nuclear families in modern times spouses and children build unique and basic organisations in our society. With mothers generally at the centre, families give hope in despair, solace in grief and strength in frailty. Family has always been the core of a social unit where a child, a newcomer on earth, grows in the midst of limitless love and unconditional care from mother and father. The presence of a child brings limitless joy to parents, their families and people around them. This joy among so many people is the gift of marriage-based family life which gives a solid emotional, intellectual and spiritual anchor to the little ones.
But this family structure is experiencing cracks with the importance of marriage being significantly diminished. Living together without marriage and having children without wed-lock are becoming widespread and overcoming social stigma. As marriage between a man and woman is rooted in religious orthodoxy, it is meant to be a social contract and thus formal; this demands a committed relationship between the spouses, with joint responsibilities towards their children. Families and community are included in this joy of starting a new journey by two people.
But in post-modern lifestyles in developed countries, the relationship between a man and a woman is generally transitory, fluid and informal. In the absence of any social contract of marriage between the two and any social pressure on them this relationship between partners can be easily broken. Changing partners is becoming more common. The arrival of children may delay or halt the breakage of a relationship, but fidelity might be compromised. Also, with children involved from a previous relationship, the situation becomes complex with multiple relationships in a blended or step family - mum, dad, mum's partner and close family members, dad's partners and close family members - the list goes on. Enhanced tension, emotion and dispute can affect a child's smooth upbringing. For some adult men and women blended families may be adventurous, but there is a likely possibility that their children will grow and suffer with disadvantages compared to those who grow in a family where the mother and father have formed a stable family.
Experience shows that frequent change of partners without deeper commitment and a meaningful responsibility towards each other is one of the main reasons for an increasing number of 'problem children' in many developed countries. They cost us educationally, socially and economically. This is a big worry for social scientists, educationalists and many parents.
A wholesome family environment is essential for a child's development. A transitory, fluid and superficial family may cause the child to be at a higher disadvantage throughout their life journey.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, writer and freelance parenting consultant (www.amanaparenting.com). Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MAbdulBari