When two of my closest friends recently told me they were having a baby I was over the moon for them.
I was chatting to my mum about it and she asked me if they were married yet or whether they were planning to get married. They weren’t but I couldn’t understand why it mattered.
That same week there was a landmark court ruling in the case of a mother of four who was denied bereavement benefits because she’d not been married. After losing her partner to cancer, Siobhan McLaughlin was told that legally she and her children weren’t entitled to financial help because they’d never tied the knot. They had their reasons but that’s neither here nor there. It’s none of our business and why does it matter?
After tirelessly fighting her case for 14 years and earning lots of well-deserved media coverage for her cause in the process, Ms McLaughlin was vindicated when the court concluded that the case amounted to discrimination against children born outside of wedlock. The judgment was that denying her access to benefits was illegal and a breach of the family’s human rights.
Thanks to one woman’s tenacity, widows and widowers who were co-habiting with their partner are a step closer to becoming entitled to bereavement benefits, currently available only to those who were married or in a civil partnership. While this ruling doesn’t change the current eligibility rules for receiving bereavement benefits, it will hopefully apply more pressure to the government and set a precedent to update the current law.
The welfare system is behind the times
Importantly this case has made us more aware of how financially vulnerable we are if we need to rely on state benefits when something goes wrong.
Co-habiting couples are particularly at risk. They can live together for years, raise children together and pay exactly the same amount of National Insurance contributions as their married counterparts and yet when one dies they can find themselves being treated differently.
I don’t think I’m alone in believing in the myth of common law and thinking that couples get the same financial and legal rights if they’ve been living together a long time.1
They don’t. In fact it’s estimated cohabiting couples could be missing out on as much as £82m a year in bereavement benefits.2
Yet cohabitation isn’t unusual. It’s the fastest-growing type of family with more than 3.3 million cohabiting couples in the UK currently. That’s more than double the number 20 years ago.3
The welfare system is clearly out-of-touch with modern love and the modern family. Society has changed so why are we expected to fit into a system that’s no longer fit for purpose?
Families and relationships come in all shapes and sizes. Some of my friends are married and some have children, some don’t. I also have friends who are co-habiting. Some of them have children too. And I have lots of single friends – a couple of them are single parents and some are more career focused or just don’t want to be in a relationship.
The point is we are all different and don’t have the same motivations in life. And that’s ok.
So what can we do as an industry to keep pace with these changes?
I think it’s fair to say traditional life stages are being replaced by new norms. Shifts in consumer behaviour will be driven by generational trends. We’ve previously spoken about the demands that millennials are placing on companies.
I believe that we’re only on the cusp of change. In the future there might be no such thing as a life stage or those stages might look entirely different.
And if that’s the case what’s the implications for our industry?
How will we adapt if consumers are no longer buying a home but choosing to rent as a lifestyle choice? What happens if people delay getting married and choose not to have children until later, if at all? And what happens if the gig economy becomes the normal way to work? So people don’t just have one employer but multiple employers at a point in time?
People will still need protection, but the triggers will change and as a result how you approach them will need to change too.
To help you start the conversation, we have a range of marketing materials to help you target millennials and other customer segments on our marketing studio.
Visit studio.royallondon.com to find out more.
1Millions of couples at severe financial risk due to ‘common-law marriage’ myth, Resolution, November 2017
2The Living Together Penalty, Royal London, accessed September 2018
3Family and Households 2017, ONS www.ons.gov.uk