The modern family: Look how we've changed

The modern family: Look how we've changed

Media release — 6 July 2010

Australian families have changed significantly over the last thirty years but they remain the basic unit in society for caring for each other and raising children, according to data released by the Australian Institute of Family Studies today.

The Institute Director, Professor Alan Hayes said the data collected over three decades showed an increase in divorce rates, a decline in marriage rates and family size, and a shift to double income families and paid childcare.

"In the early eighties some people wondered whether the family would actually survive," Professor Hayes said.

"The marriage rate was declining and more people were living together. The divorce rate had also increased dramatically when the Family Law Act came into force in 1976 – the same year the fertility rate fell to below the replacement level for the very first time in this country."

"Compared with 30 years ago, parenthood today tends to start later in life, couples tend to have fewer children, and both parents are likely to be in paid employment.

"Despite these changes, the family unit has thrived and continues to play a central role in shaping the health and wellbeing of all immediate family members,"

The Institute, which has spent three decades charting family trends and the forces behind them, will present a revised picture of the modern family at its 30-year anniversary conference starting in Melbourne tomorrow.

Some of the key trends in the Institute's fact sheet Families then and now: 1980-2010 include:

Relationship trends

  • Marriage rates prior to the 1980s were already declining and cohabitation rates rising. These trends have continued with people living together becoming the normal pathway to marriage.
  • The crude marriage rate (the number of marriages for every 1,000 Australians) fell from 9.3 in 1970 to 7.4 in 1980, falling to 5.3 in 2001 and only increasing slightly after that to 5.5 in 2008.
  • In 1980 only 23 per cent of couples lived together before marrying, compared to 78% in 2008.
  • The crude divorce rate (the number of divorces for every 1,000 Australians) more than doubled between 1975 and 1976, but then fell to levels that nonetheless remained much higher than before 1976 (2.7 in 1980 and 2.2 in 2008).

Family characteristics

  • The average size of households has fallen from 3.5 members in 1966, to 3.0 in 1981 and to 2.6 in 2006.
  • The proportion of families with dependent children has fallen, while the proportion of couples living with no children has increased progressively.
  • In 1976, 48% of all households containing families were couple families living with dependent children and 28% were couples living with no children. By 2006 there were equal numbers of households that were couple families with dependent children and couple families living with no children.
  • Lone-parent families have increased from less than 7% in 1976 to 11% by 2006.
  • In 2006-2007, 72% of families with at least one child under the age of 18 were "intact" families" (where there are no step children of one of the partners); 17% were families headed by lone mothers; 4% were step-families, 3% were blended families and 3% were lone-parent families headed by fathers.

Having children

  • By 1980 young people were remaining longer in education and women were embracing post-secondary education and entering the workforce.  With the wider availability of the contraceptive pill in the 1970s and greater education and employment opportunities, women started to delay marriage and children.
  • In 1980, women most commonly had their first child in their early twenties. By 2007, most new Mums were in their late twenties, with marginally less in their early thirties

Fertility trends

  • Despite advances in assisted reproduction technologies, the postponement of childbearing, coupled with relationship instability substantially narrowed the window of opportunity for women having children.
  • By the late 1990s the reality that Australia was in the grip of a fertility crisis become apparent. By 2001 the fertility rate had fallen to 1.7 babies per woman, but has since increased to just under 2.0 babies per woman.
  • By the time women reach the age of 40-44, the proportion who have had three or more children has fallen considerably since the 1980s, while the proportions who have had no children or only one or two children has increased.
  • Two-child families now predominate, while the number of women who had given birth to only one child increased from 8% in 1981 to 13% in 2006.
  • The proportion of babies born outside wedlock has surged, with the trend starting more than 30 years ago.
  • In 1960 only 4.8% of babies were born outside marriage, almost doubling to 8.3% in 1970, increasing to 12.4 % in 1980 and to 34.4% (just over one third) in 2008.

Parental employment

  • The proportion of mothers living with dependent children who were in paid work increased from 43% in 1981 to 63% in 2009, although mothers were consistently more likely to be in part-time rather than full-time paid work.
  • In 1983 single income couples (with dependent children) dominated, but by 2009 there were more couple parents with one full-time and one part-time job than couple parents with one full-time job only.
  • There has been a small decrease in the number of couple parents with no job between them.
  • Just under half of all lone mothers (48%) had no paid work in 2009, compared with around two-thirds in 1983.


  • The surge of mothers moving into paid work has led to grandparents becoming an important source of child-care.
  • The proportion of preschool age children in formal care, including preschool, increased from 29% in 1987 to 45% in 2002.

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