Intervention of Dr. Ljiljana Skrobić in the second International Conference on the Family on April 15, 2023

Comparative insight into common characteristics and distinctive features between the Balkan family and the Western family

We can say that the family, both as a concept and as an institution of society, is constantly changing. Some changes include the time and way of forming a family, the structure of the family, its functions, the relationships between family members, partners’ relationships, parents’ roles, and so on. 

When we speak about the family, it is most often a synonym for a traditional family (two parents and at least one child). We can observe changes in this type of family through the characteristics of the second demographic transition. Some of them include postponing the start of family formation, a low fertility rate, a decrease in the number of married couples, the diffusion of cohabitation, an increased rate of divorces, and an increased rate of childless couples. This demographic process in European countries has a few more characteristics, such as an increased rate of single-parent families and a decrease in the numbers of household members. There is also an increased rate of young people who later leave their parents' homes.

Many of these changes and statistical trends regarding the Western family are becoming present and prominent in the Balkan family, with only some delay. Young people in the Balkans follow some global trends in this area, such as postponing family formation until their late twenties and early thirties, or even their late thirties. Some researchers point out that this is especially evident among highly educated young populations. The transition from the parent's family to their own family is influenced by different factors. Economic and cultural factors are two of them. In the Balkan family, social and economic situations often get in the way of the individualization of family life.

Family transitions are taking place in an unfavorable structural context, which includes elements like insecure employment, low financial stability, housing dependence on family of origin resources, and so on. The lack of housing resources, such as affordable home loans, social housing, inexpensive housing rents, and so on, is one of the most significant structural components. The resources of the family of origin play the largest role in family transition, followed by personal resources and barely any structural resources. We can conclude that young people find it difficult to start an independent life, so they are forced to plan their family within wider family systems. This often means living in a multigenerational family.

In 2021, the average age at which young people had left their parental home in the European Union was 26.5 years (Eurostat, 2021). Young people in Sweden, Denmark, and Finland had left their parental homes before the age of 23. In Germany and the Netherlands, the average age was less than 25. As a contrast, in the same year, the average age at which young people had left their parental homes in Croatia, Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria was 30 years or more.

There are a couple more significant trends with regards to Balkan families. Some of them involve dependence on parental resources and informal support before and even after starting one's own family. Informal networks are important because of a lack of system support. Generally, in the Balkans, we value family highly and consider relationships between family members as something very important. Mutual support and help last a lifetime. All these are less common within Western families.

Changes in marriage and divorce patterns are occurring in the Balkan countries almost as quickly as in Western countries. We can see this in the increase in the average age of first marriage for men and women. While the main reasons behind this increase in the West are cultural factors, in the Balkans – in most cases – crucial are unfavorable structural factors.

In 2020, the average age at first marriage in the European Union was 30.5 years of age for the brides and 33.1 years for the grooms. These numbers have increased by 4 years in the last ten years. For example, the average age of entering a first marriage in Sweden is 34 years of age for the brides and 36,7 years for the grooms. In Serbia, it is 31,1 for the brides and 34,3 for the grooms. In North Macedonia, it is 27 for the brides and 29,8 for the grooms. In Kosovo, it is 28 for the brides and 31 for the grooms.

In 2020, in the EU Member States, there were 3.2 marriages for every 1000 persons (so called "crude marriage rate") and 1.6 divorces for every 1000 persons (so called "crude divorce rate"). The lowest crude marriage rates within the EU were reported in Italy (1.6 marriages per 1,000 persons) and Spain (1.9). In the same year, the highest crude marriage rates within the EU were reported in Hungary (6.9 marriages per 1000 persons) and Latvia (5.6). In Serbia, there were 4.80 marriages per 1000 persons. Albania and Kosovo have high marriage rates (7.9 and 9.8 per 1000 persons).

In 2020, in the EU Member States, there were 1.6 divorces for every 1000 persons. In 2020, the highest crude divorce rates within the EU were reported in Latvia, Lithuania, and Denmark (2.7 divorces per 1000 persons in those three countries). In Serbia and Albania, there were around 1.5 divorces per 1,000 persons.

Regarding birth and natality, the current trends include a postponement and decline in childbearing, an insufficient number of births (which is below the level required for simple population renewal), and a rising average maternal age at childbirth. According to the available Eurostat data, the countries of the Western Balkans face fertility rates below the replacement level. Interestingly, extramarital births - births occurring in non-marital relationships, among cohabiting couples, and to lone parents - have outnumbered births inside marriage in several EU Member States, notably France (where 62.2 % of all births occurred outside marriage), Bulgaria (59.6 %), Slovenia (56.5 %), and Sweden (55.2 %). Greece was at the other end of the spectrum, where more than 86.2 % of births occurred within marriage. In Turkey, this latter share was as high as 97.2 %.

Also, over the past few decades, there have been some changes in the family life cycle. Usually, there is a stage known as the "empty nest" when children grow up and leave home. However, since the nineties, there have been two phenomena: "boomerang children" and "crowded nests". "Boomerang children" are young people or adults who, after leaving their parents' home, eventually return to that home to live there again. It usually happens as a consequence of a big economic crisis like the Great Recession of 2007 in Europe and the USA. Similarly, due to economic issues, young people in the Balkans either stay at home with their parents, leave their parents’ home late, or return after some time. 

Generally, families are great supports for individual existence and development, especially during crises and difficult times. Families and households sometimes even compensate for a lack of formal institutional support in areas like taking care of children, the elderly, the sick, and so on.

In addition to the above, we must not forget that today in the world there is a great variety of family forms and the ways in which families are formed. There are traditional families (which we talked about), nontraditional families, and new forms of families. Single-parent families, stepfamilies, parents who cohabit, adoptive families, and foster families are examples of nontraditional families.

Since there is not enough time to cover them all, in what follows I will focus on one of them. As we said at the beginning, currently there is an increased rate of single-parent families. In 2020, in the EU, there were an average of 14% single-parent families. For example, in Sweden, 34%, in Denmark, 29%, in Greece, 9%, and in Croatia, 5%. Also, among the non-EU countries, we can see the data for Albania 8%, Bosnia and Herzegovina 9%, Montenegro 9%, and Serbia 15%. Single-parent families are usually formed after divorce, death, or extramarital births rather than by choice. These families face a lot of challenges. According to research, the biggest challenge is material deprivation. This is a common situation in the Balkans. Single-parent families are more frequently formed by choice in Western countries than in the Balkans.

The concept of "new forms of family" includes single mothers by choice, lesbian mother and gay father families, and families formed through assisted reproductive technology, including in vitro fertilization, egg donation, sperm donation, embryo donation, and surrogacy. Couples who have children through in vitro fertilization are very similar to traditional families and aren’t so new, but because of the specific way of family formation, they are considered a "new form".

The representation and formal recognition of different family types is another important difference between the Balkan family and the Western family. Western countries have almost all these family forms in law and practice, but the Balkan countries do not. In the Balkan countries, assisted reproductive technology is legally recognized, but only for heterosexual couples. Some "new forms of family" aren’t legally recognized in the Balkan countries. Yet that doesn’t change the reality that they exist. They can be more or less hidden from society, and it is possible for homosexual parents to live and raise children, even with the lack of official recognition. It seems that our region doesn't currently have a widespread social climate that would support the legalization of these relationships yet. However, some changes have happened. Montenegro and Croatia have laws on life partnerships, and in addition to that, in Croatia, the court did allow gay couples to be foster parents.

Generally, we can see a few more new characteristics of the family, like the process of detraditionalization, which reduces the importance of traditional groups such as the family. Also, there is the process of individualization, which shifts the focus to personal relationships and intimacy. It is often stated that nowadays the family is less and less a place for reproduction and gender hierarchy and more and more a place where individuals build their identity.

However, predictions are that the family will survive despite all the changes and modifications. In all these transformations, the idea of family is not denied but rather established as the desired social context for intimate relationships through new practices and organizational forms. Today, it is impossible to talk about the family in the singular, but about families.

Bearing all this in mind, we need an adequate understanding of the changes that the modern family is going through in terms of its structure, social role, and importance. This is necessary for the construction of an appropriate political and institutional framework, since family-related issues are an important segment of national social policies, which require a change in social practices, social relations, and values.

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