Laurent Toulemon

reviews recent developments concerning the family in France since the baby boom, in connection with the lecture series “Portraits de Familles” [Family portraits] organized by Paris Bibliothèques in partnership with INED

© Raphaël Debengy

Laurent Toulemon is a senior researcher and head of INED’s “Fertility, Family and Sexuality” research team. Together with France Meslé and Jacques Véron he co-edited the Dictionnaire de démographie et des sciences de la population, published by Armand Colin. Toulemon has written numerous articles on fertility and the family in France and Europe; he is editor-in-chief of the journal Population, along with Olivia Samuel and Anne Solaz. In connection with the lecture series “Portraits de Familles” [Family portraits] organized by Paris Bibliothèques in partnership with INED, he here reviews recent developments concerning the family in France since the baby boom.

(Interview conducted in March 2015)

INED is taking part in the “Portraits de Familles” lecture series being held in 2015 in Paris public libraries. How did this partnership develop?

The “Portraits de Familles” lecture series has taken on an extremely vast subject. Everyone—novelists, philosophers, historians, jurists, genealogists, psychologists, and others—talks about families. Since the series draws on multiple approaches to describing the family, it’s logical that INED was invited to participate. Demography is interested in any and everything that affects the size and structure of the population, so demographers, too, have things to say about the family. In counterpoint to literary, philosophical or psychoanalytic discourses about it, they offer a more distanced view, based on description and objective measuring of facts.
Still, the family does not readily lend itself to “statistical objectification” because it constantly requires us to redefine our terms. For example, it is much simpler to count births than couples. Couples cannot be defined today only in terms of marriage or the notion of exclusive sexual partner; nor is shared residence necessarily relevant because some partners don’t live together. Some surveys give precedence to spontaneous self-reporting—that is, respondent’s answer to the question “Do you live with a partner as a couple?”—whereas others impose a homogeneous “learned” definition that then allows for comparing groups over time and space. On more sensitive subjects such as contraception, abortion or domestic violence, it is the questionnaire and keeping track of cohorts over long periods that enable us to extract a kind of statistical truth from answers given by respondents who were all asked exactly the same questions.

How is it that demography can shed light on the family?

First, because demographic changes affect families and modify their structure, particularly in matters of intergenerational solidarity. As life expectancy rises and the population ages, the way older persons are cared for changes. Their children often cannot take care of them under their own roof any more. Co-residence, which seemed feasible when there were fewer old persons and more large families, is no longer possible.
But we do not remain passive in the face of demographic changes, and those changes themselves are affected by changes in families’ behaviours. For example, the fact that couples are having their first child later in life is linked to our ability to disconnect sexuality, reproduction and living as a couple; also to labour market difficulties, women in the labour force, etc.
Regarding not just fertility but many other behaviours, demographers’ attention is quickly drawn to family ties. And their observations in this area, in connection with sociological study, can shed light on changes in those ties.

Where does the family stand in France today, forty years after the end of the baby boom?

In the 1960s some people wanted to do away with the family, which they viewed as a kind of authoritarian straitjacket. But though the end of the baby boom was also the end of large families in France, the model of a couple with children has proved highly resistant to our ability to control fertility. The contraceptive revolution has not been accompanied by a conjugal revolution: “the couple” is still a strong value. However, family contours have changed a great deal.
At the present time, 6% of children are conceived by parents who do not live together; the figure for the 1970s was considerably higher: 10%. Though 72% of couples in France are married, the number of marriages has fallen and is now pulling closer to the number of civil unions; the latter practice, called PACS in France (Pacte Civil de Solidarité), has greatly increased since becoming a legal option in 1999. In parallel, over the last fifteen years young people have started living together in a couple earlier in life, though this does not necessarily correspond to a long-term commitment.
With the fall in mortality, death is no longer always what separates life partners; many have already gotten divorced. With the increasingly consensual understanding that a good divorce is preferable to a bad marriage, rates of couple breakup rose greatly (before plateauing out in the first decade of the 2000s). Couple breakup in turn facilitated the development of new types of families. While most minors (70%) in France still live in a “standard” family (two parents and their children), 11% now live in blended families and 18% in single-parent families.
In many other countries the family as it used to be known has undergone major change:  declining marriage, rising divorce, women in the labour force, etc. What is specific to France is that it has maintained a relatively high, constant fertility rate, close to generation replacement level (about two children per woman).
This has led to a somewhat overoptimistic vision of the family in France (“all is well because fertility is booming”); dominant discourse aims above all to keep up with and accompany changes in the family. Demographic studies partially justify this positive vision—or at least they would seem to invalidate current nostalgia for the baby boom (“things were better before”)­—showing as they do that domestic violence is falling and women’s situation improving.