Over the last 25 years we have seen the start of a trend in Europe towards a decline in the "nuclear" family and an increase in single-parent or step families. What has been happening to family values during this period?
This is the topic examined by Nicolas Herpin, based on the results of the European Values Survey in 11 western European countries in 1981, 1990 and 1999.
Thanks to the surveys he has been able to draw up a list of the factors that Europeans reckon to be the key to stable partnership. Top of the list is good interpersonal communication, followed by doing things together, material considerations and, at the bottom of the list, opinions about same-sex partnerships. This pattern, which could be labelled "postmaterialist", varies little with age, gender or socio-economic category, and reflects a general consensus within the countries concerned, with the exception of Denmark. As to what shapes public opinion, religion appears still to have a strong influence on private life and family cohesion.
Nicolas Herpin then looks at the values particularly emphasized in bringing up children. Of the 11 qualities that parents should encourage in their children, the most widely approved were tolerance and respect for others, followed by a sense of one's responsibilities and good manners. Herpin stresses the rise of individualism, linked to young people's greater economic independence. These rankings differ more from country to country than the previous group. Similarly, clear differences between countries can be seen with regard to the social structure of public opinion.
The author concludes that countries are "differently similar" with regard to these two aspects of family life. Conjugal values have not changed over the last 20 years and differ little among European countries, all the less where the Roman Catholic church is dominant, whereas the values that should be passed on to children appear neither as stable over time nor as uniform geographically. Countries fall into groups according to the nature of their domestic labour market and the position of young people in it.