The “Study of Family History” Survey concurrent with the 1999 French census has for the first time made it possible to measure the proportions and ages of men and women forming first unions, and to observe the annual changes in first union formation.
The age at first union fell between approximately the 1930 and 1955 cohorts, in particular among men. The timing of first union has been substantially delayed. Over roughly fifteen cohorts, the median age has increased by more than two years for men and women, and this trend toward later first unions seems not to be complete.
Period indicators of union formation are calculated for the years 1960-1998 and used to date the reversal of trend to the mid-1970s and to link the annual variation of these indicators to levels of youth unemployment. The lengthening of education has had a fairly consistent delaying effect on union formation, but unemployment levels appear to have initiated the movement and modified its pace.
The postponement of first unions is accompanied, particularly among men, by an increase in the proportion of individuals reaching age 50 without ever having lived in a stable union. Several possible explanations are advanced for this: the rising frequency of non-cohabiting partnerships, the greater instability of unions, and the increasing difficulty, for some men, of finding a partner for life.