Australian family profiles: Social and demographic patterns

Australian family profiles: Social and demographic patterns

Ilene Wolcott

Historical publication – December 1997

This historical publication is only available as a PDF document and does not meet the latest web accessibility standards.

If you wish to access this publication in another format, please contact us and we will try to procure one for you.


Australian families have undergone many changes over the past few decades. Some of these changes have centred on the personal dynamics of family life; other changes have taken place as families respond to external events that impact on their economic or social circumstances. This book draws together key facts and figures about family formation and change, drawing on information and analysis from a wide variety of sources, including the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The first three chapters by David de Vaus cover Family structure, Marriage, and Divorce. These are followed by chapters on: The extended family, by Christine Millward and David de Vaus; Fertility, by David de Vaus, Sarah Wise and Grace Soriano; Young people, by Robyn Hartley and David de Vaus; Ageing, by David de Vaus; Work and family, by Ilene Wolcott; Family incomes and housing, by Ilene Wolcott, Ruth Weston and Ian Winter; Family care, by Christine Millward, Ilene Wolcott, David de Vaus and Grace Soriano; Family violence, by Adam Tomison and Ilene Wolcott; and Family wellbeing, by Ruth Weston. All chapters are separately indexed and can be retrieved by author or title.

Table of Contents

  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • 1 Family Structure
    • David de Vaus
    • Family types
    • Household size
    • Age profile and projections
    • References
  • 2 Marriage
    • David de Vaus
    • Formal marital status
    • Rates and trends
    • Marriage values
    • Cohabitation and de facto marriage
    • Remarriage
    • Intermarriage
    • References
  • 3 Divorce
    • David de Vaus
    • Rates and trends
    • Marriage duration
    • Cohabitation and divorce
    • Divorce in remarriages
    • Divorce and children
    • Attitudes about divorce
    • References
  • 4 The Extended Family
    • Christine Millward, David de Vaus
    • Proximity of family members
    • Contact with family members
    • Networks and support
    • Multi-family households
    • References
  • 5 Fertility
    • David de Vaus, Sarah Wise, Grace Soriano
    • Number of children
    • Ideal family size
    • Age of mothers at first birth
    • Teenage mothers
    • Births to unmarried women
    • Sterilisation
    • Childlessness
    • References
  • 6 Young People
    • Robyn Hartley, David de Vaus
    • Dependence and independence
    • Leaving home
    • Education
    • Employment and unemployment
    • Living independently
    • Unsupported and homeless young people
    • Sexuality and sexual attitudes
    • Satisfaction with family life
    • Youth suicide
    • References
  • 7 Ageing
    • David de Vaus
    • Marital status of older people
    • Living arrangements for older people
    • Workforce participation of older people
    • Attitudes to elder care
    • References
  • 8 Work and Family
    • Ilene Wolcott
    • Workers with family responsibilities
    • Balancing work and family life
    • Effect of work on family life
    • Work and leisure
    • Satisfaction with work and family life
    • Meeting the needs of workers with family responsibilities
    • References
  • 9 Family Incomes and Housing
    • Ilene Wolcott, Ruth Weston, Ian Winter
    • Family incomes
    • High and low income households
    • Incomes after divorce
    • Income support for families Housing
    • References
  • 10 Family Care
    • Christine Millward, Ilene Wolcott, David de Vaus, Grace Soriano
    • Child care
    • Caring and the disabled
    • Elder care
    • References
  • 11 Family Violence
    • Adam Tomison, Ilene Wolcott
    • Child abuse and neglect
    • Domestic violence
    • Elder abuse
    • References
  • 12 Family Wellbeing
    • Ruth Weston
    • Characteristics of family wellbeing
    • Stages of parenting
    • Couple and lone-parent families
    • References
  • Glossary
  • Index


During the final decades of the twentieth century in Australia, as in other post-industrial countries, the general social and economic context in which families go about their business has changed radically. At the same time, families themselves have been undergoing significant changes to their structures. Both sets of changes look set to continue into the next millennium.

Families are often talked about as if there were only one ideal template from which they should be constructed. In reality, families are dynamic and complex entities, responsive to economic and social change in the overall milieu in which they are embedded. Patterns of family formation, in particular, are changing. For example, both men and women are marrying later and having fewer children; more people are divorcing and living in de facto marriages; expectations for greater gender equity within families have increased; and more children are being borne and raised within less traditional family structures. Understanding of families needs to be informed by an awareness of the diversity of family forms and recognition of the different responses of family members to challenges along their life course.

As Australia engages with the effects of economic restructuring and globalisation and governments seek to contain expenditure on social and community programs, there is increasing reliance on the private, community and voluntary sectors, and on families themselves, to fulfil care and support functions previously undertaken by the state. Low-income families, women and others reliant upon government benefits are highly vulnerable to these changes, and much of the pressure created by limited social and economic resources is borne by middle-aged women who are often stretched by the multiple demands of elder care, workforce participation, and of providing support for young adult children and grandchildren as well as managing the bulk of domestic work.

Changing patterns of family structure and formation - the formation of marriage-like relationships, changes in childbearing and fertility patterns, revisited gender roles, the intrusion of work into family life and family breakdown - are interpreted by some commentators as constituting the decline of the 'family as we know it'. Others argue, in contrast, that past evidence shows families and communities to be resilient, with the capacity to respond adaptively in the face of demands for change; such commentators argue that their strengths, durability and adaptability will ensure that families remain the basic social units of Society.

Whether family change in response to social and economic factors is interpreted as decline or as adaptation, it is essential that we are clear about the nature and dimensions of the transitions occurring in contemporary families. The primary objective of Australian Family Profiles is to provide accurate, timely information about patterns of change in family structure and function, incorporating, where appropriate, comparative data on international trends. In addition, the volume explores values and issues which impact both on the family unit and the lives of individual family members as well as providing information about family incomes and the programs of government assistance for families.

The information presented in this volume is testimony both to the diversity of Australian families and to the importance that the development and delivery of family policy and services are achieved in ways that are sensitive to the differing needs of families throughout their life course. The Institute is grateful for the financial support provided by the Commonwealth Department of Health and Family Services towards the preparation of this publication.

Harry McGurk
Australian Institute of Family Studies


Australian families have undergone many changes over the past few decades. Some of these changes have centred on the personal dynamics of family life - the way people form families and organise their family tasks and responsibilities - other changes have taken place as families respond to external events that impact on their economic or social circumstances.

Families are never static - they change in form and composition over the life course of their members. Couples form, children are born and grow up, couples may separate and form new relationships, family members age or become ill, grandchildren arrive, one partner may be widowed. Families may enjoy financial and employment security or have periods of hardship and insecurity; they may remain in the same geographical area or move to distant places. Families will vary for the degree of closeness and caring they give to each other.

Australian Family Profiles aims to draw together in one publication, key facts and figures about family formation and change in an accessible, easy to read format. The compilation has been structured for a broad audience and will appeal both to professionals and policy makers concerned with family-related issues and to the generalist reader. Teachers and students, in particular, will appreciate the ease of reference to a diverse collection of statistics drawn from the collections of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the former Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research, the Department of Employment, Education and Training and, of course, the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Because our goal has been to provide good quality, contemporary Australian data that are generalisable and will both inform debate and provide a context within which these debates can occur, neither highly specialised data analysis nor lengthy explanations for particular patterns and trends is included. Rather, key facts and figures are located and the sources from which these data may be obtained are indicated.

Australian Family Profiles relies heavily on data collected in the various surveys undertaken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The ABS have been active in collecting high quality, national data and have made some of this available in the excellent Focus on Family series and the annual Australian Social Trends publications. The ABS data sources on which this compilation draws include annual collections such as marriage, divorce, fertility and death statistics, census data, the 1992 Survey of Families in Australia, the 1993 National Child Care Survey, the 1993 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers, the Time Use Survey and the regular Labour Force Survey.

Australian Family Profiles also draws on analysis by other national agencies, such as the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the former Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research, and the Department of Employment, Education and Training, and on surveys which are not so readily available. Included in the latter are data collected in surveys or studies undertaken by the Australian Institute of Family Studies: for example, the Australian Family Formation Project, the Economic Consequences of Marriage Breakdown Study and the Australian Living Standards Study. In addition, previously unpublished information from national surveys such as the 1989 National Social Science Survey and the 1995 Australian Family Values Survey is included.

We have necessarily been selective in the matters with which we have dealt here. We have been guided by the availability of good quality, contemporary national data and by the relevance of the topic to family policy. Nevertheless, the selection of topics no doubt reflects our own interests and expertise, and another set of editors and contributors may well have produced a different publication. It is hoped that by pulling together key information from a range of sources, this profile of Australian families will provide a valuable and informative introduction to patterns of social and demographic change in Australian families, and entice people further to delve into the data sources from which we have drawn.

We would like to thank the research staff of the Australian Institute of Family Studies who assisted with the preparation of this book. In particular, we acknowledge the contributions of our colleagues and co-authors, Robyn Hartley (formerly of the Institute), Christine Millward, Grace Soriano, Adam Tomison, Ruth Weston, Ian Winter and Sara Wise. Finally, we wish to express our appreciation to Ros Moye for her tireless efforts in transforming the original text to the final publication.

David de Vaus and Ilene Wolcott

Publication details

Historical publication
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, December 1997
150 pp.

Download Publication