Moving in with a partner for the first time is traditionally considered to be an important milestone in the transition to adulthood. However, with the increased complexity of pathways to independent living, including tightening housing market and labour market uncertainty, as well as rising societal acceptance of non-marital relationships, the motivations and circumstances behind moving in with a partner might have considerably changed as well.
Alina Pelikh (University College London), Júlia Mikolai (University of St Andrews) and Hill Kulu (University of St Andrews) used data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) and the Understanding Society study (UKHLS) to study how first partnership transitions have changed across three birth cohorts: 1974-1979, 1980-1984 and 1985-1990, who were observed between 1991 and 2016 and were aged between 16 and 27. Their findings were recently published in Advances in Life Course Research.
The authors found that non-marital cohabitation has become an almost universal form of first partnership regardless of socio-economic background or educational level, with younger cohorts entering their first partnerships later in life.
But what happened after cohabitation? Results show that compared to people born in the 70s – who had a 50/50 chance to marry or separate from their first cohabiting partners – those born in the 80s were significantly more likely to separate from their first cohabiting partner with the youngest cohort having a 13-times higher risk of separation than marriage.
Why? The reasons to cohabit might have changed over time. The authors suggest that while among older cohorts, first co-residential partnerships were likely to be treated as a trial marriage, young adults born in the 1980s could be more likely to move together for different reasons, such as the lack of normative constraints, convenience and economic reasons. Alternatively, it could be that young adults in the youngest cohorts (and especially at young ages) see living together as a part of the dating process, and it is not until later ages that they consider marriage or marriage-like long-term cohabitation.
The study also 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, highly educated people were more likely to move in with a partner, although these partnerships almost universally ended in separation. 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.
The authors conclude that their findings provide further evidence for the increasing complexity of partnership transitions among millennials with many postponing cohabitations 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.