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One explanatory factor for the declining marriage rate is that family formation has increasingly become connected to alternative living arrangements, i.e. an increase in the share of cohabiting unions as an alternative to a marriage-based family.

The other explanatory factor is postponement of marriage. It is a general trend in the majority of European countries that the mean age of women at first marriage is increasing. In Northern Europe it has increased by almost four years during the past few decades. While in the EU15 the average age of women at marriage is 27.5 years, in northern countries it is close to 30 years. In Sweden a womans average age at marriage increase d from 24 years in 1960 to 30.2 years in 2000, in Denmark it increased from 22.8 to 29.5 years, and in Finland it increased from 23.8 to 28 years (Population Statistics, 2006).

It was characteristic of the former socialist countries that women got married on average two years earlier than women in western European countries. Although in both groups of countries the mean age of women at first marriage increased, by the turn of the century the differences between the EU15 and the 12 new member states remained about the same. Among new member states, the mean age of women at first marriage is highest in Slovenia (26.7), Malta (26.7) and Cyprus (26.4) but they are all lagging behind the EU15 average. The only old EU country where the average age of women at first marriage is similar to the average of the new member states is Portugal (25.7); among the countries of EU15, it is the lowest age of a woman at first marriage.