Families and cultural diversity in Australia

Historical publication – December 1995

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2. Australian families: Values and behaviour

by Peter McDonald

The values and behaviour of the broad community of all Australians are properly described as 'Australian'. They are an amalgam of the values which different communities in Australia have brought to the national scene over long periods of time; nevertheless the predominance of 'western' family values is undeniable. This chapter traces the western historical roots of family values in Australia and explores the main trends in family values in the broad Australian community.

The diversity of family values in Australia includes the values of all the groups described in other chapters of this book, but it also includes the values of all other Australians. The numerically dominant people among all other Australians are those of Western and Northern European origin, sometimes described as 'AngloAustralian'. This term is quite inaccurate in a literal sense but relatively indicative in a cultural sense. It is inaccurate because it would be foolish to attempt to isolate those Australians of English origin and describe their values and behaviour; it is relatively indicative, however, because the demography of Australian families has always been very similar to that in England (McDonald 1974), and the legal system, the ultimate expression of values, is a derivative of the English legal system.

Through extensive intermarriage over the past 200 years, the main groups that have come to Australia from Northern and Western Europe (the English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, German, Dutch and Scandinavian) are largely indistinguishable from each other in terms of family values. McConville (1985) and Hellier (1985) describe how Irish and Scottish Highlanders in colonial Australia intermarried extensively with the English, to the extent that their particular ethnic groups failed to stay together as families. McEwen (1985) concluded on this evidence that intermarriage explains the all-pervading Englishness of Australian culture until 1946. Added to this, there is now a very substantial group among the non-Aboriginal population who recognise little origin other than Australia. In total, this numerically dominant group could be described as having western family values in the general or international sense.

Studies of changing demographic behaviour in relation to family life show that western societies have very similar patterns and that shifts in behaviour have occurred roughly simultaneously in all western societies (van de Kaa 1987). Movements in the timing of marriage over the past century provide an outstanding example of the similarity of family-related behaviour across western societies. This is not to say that family values and behaviour in western societies are mirror images of each other; there are differences for example in the forms of contraception used and the incidence of ex-nuptial births, and differences in the timing of the adoption of new values and behaviour. Some commentators prefer to emphasise the differences, for example Lestaeghe and Surkyn's (1994) notion of 'heteropraxis', or the coexistence of a plurality of values, while others emphasise the similarities, for example van de Kaa's second European demographic transition. All agree, however, that in broad terms western family values are moving in the same general direction. In terms of comparison, McNicoll (1990) says that Australia is not in the forefront of family change but follows along.

It is important, therefore, to consider 'western' family values in contrast to the values described in other chapters in this book which refer to groups who are 'non-western' in origin. This approach recognises the significance of the international influence of westernisation. Numerically smaller cultures in Australia are not simply dealing with differences between their own culture and the dominant Australian culture; they are dealing with global changes which are influencing family behaviour in Australia and in their countries of origin.

The European origins of westernisation

In its archetypal form, westernisation can be defined as the extension of rights to individuals as opposed to the limitation of those rights in the collective interest. In contrast, eastern philosophies such as Confucianism place more importance on the collective interest of social units, especially the family, as opposed to the interests of the individual. This tension between the individual and the collective good was the problem that exercised the minds of the Enlightenment philosophers: how to reconcile the goal of personal autonomy with the conviction that humankind is irreducibly social. Kant defined personal autonomy as the individual's capacity for self-direction (Hawthorn 1987). The opposite extreme is prescription, where an individual's actions are very largely prescribed by their place in the social structure. The Enlightenment was a reaction to such prescription, based on beliefs that an individual's situation was not immutable, nor predetermined by the collective interest.

Much of the early energy in the Enlightenment movement was directed to the political and economic spheres and to the public world, predominantly a male sphere, rather than the private world of the family. At the time, economic and political structures in Western and Northern Europe were not contingent upon family organisation, as they were and still are in many other societies. Contrary to popular myth and sociological theory, the extended family household was not dominant in these countries prior to the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Rather, careful reconstructions of past populations in Western and Northern Europe reveal the predominance of the nuclear family household centuries before the onset of the Industrial Revolution (Laslett and Wall 1972).

It is now postulated by this school of thought that the nuclear family household in England has its origins as far back as the Christian revolution in the fourth century (Goldthorpe 1987). It was from about that time that the Church introduced restrictions on marriage and inheritance which had the effect of increasing its own wealth while weakening links in the wider kin network. It promoted a change in land tenure from 'folkland', land held in customary tenure by a kin group, to 'bookland', land held by an individual or individuals under a written title deed and subject to the written will of the landholder (Goody 1983). From this point of view, the origins of western individualism in Europe can be traced back to the actions of the Christian Church some 16 centuries ago.

Thus, because the tribal or clan form of family organisation. was not part of the political structure in Western and Northern Europe at the time of the Enlightenment, everyday life operated in two spheres, the public and the private. Political and economic autonomy could be pursued in the public sphere without affecting the structural aspects of the private sphere of family life. Autonomy and social mobility were pursued through such mechanisms as democracy, free competition, freedom of religious practice, and ownership of property. The separation of the public and the private spheres meant that the autonomy of members of a family was embodied in the autonomy of the household head. Indeed, one of the earliest English laws dealing with the family, the Marriage Act 1753, prevented children under the age of majority (defined for the first time by this Act as 21 years) from marrying without their father's permission. The purpose was to protect the father's property. The private sphere was also protected by the absence of laws in respect of divorce. Most eastern cultures, in contrast, have had legal provisions for divorce but, because the family is an integral part of the socio-economic structure, extreme social pressure has been used to prevent divorce (McDonald 1985).

By the time the western New World was born, the ideas of the freer pursuit of personal autonomy, social mobility and equality had already been unleashed in the Old World. Therefore, especially in the United States and to a lesser extent in the Australian colonies, the ideas of the Enlightenment could be set in operation away from the rigidities of the Old World class system.

Australian family values: 1830-1940

Historical studies of English towns and villages have shown that before and after the Industrial Revolution young couples were expected to set up their own separate households and, indeed, that older persons were also expected, very largely, to live separately from their children (Laslett 1989). If industrialisation had any impact on family structure, it was to increase the incidence of extended family households among working people in towns and cities where there was a severe housing shortage (Anderson 1971). This would have been the situation in the towns and cities of the Australian colonies in the mid-nineteenth century.

By the late nineteenth century, however, with increased prosperity, the spread of railway lines, suburbanisation of the middle class, the extension of credit to working families and the building of urban workers' cottages (Cannon 1966; Davison 1978), extended families in the central city would have declined in significance and the nuclear family household would again have predominated. The infrequency of extended family households has been confirmed by studies of the late nineteenth century in Australia (McDonald and Quiggin 1985; McEwen 1985).

The fact is sometimes overlooked that, because of high rates of spousal mortality, for both husbands (occupational accidents) and for wives (deaths in childbirth), around 17 per cent of all families with children in 1891 were one-parent families, the same level as today (McDonald 1993). Indeed, despite the currently high divorce rates, marriages today are more likely to be still intact after 30 years than were marriages 100 years ago.

The nineteenth century is marked by the extension of the value of personal autonomy into the private sphere of the family. The main features of this were the establishment of laws relating to divorce and the payment of child maintenance, married women's rights to own property, compulsory schooling, child labour laws, women's suffrage and, most significantly, the spread of birth control methods. Noting that the decline in the birth rate in the late nineteenth century was achieved through methods which required the cooperation of husbands and wives, Quiggin (1988) suggested that this indicated 'a changing attitude to women, including a belief that they should not be subjected to an unremitting cycle of pregnancy, childbirth and lactation', a cycle which not uncommonly ended in death. Quiggin concluded that 'the use of fertility control was a logical approach to [a woman] maintaining some freedom and control over her life'.

Although, following English law, divorce provisions in the Australian colonies were not equal for men and women, legislators in the late nineteenth century argued that deserted wives should be allowed the freedom to remarry, rather than being forced to seek support for themselves and their children on the streets.

This movement to provide a greater level of autonomy to women and children within the family setting did not proceed without opposition. The chapter dealing with this period in Landmarks in Australian Population History (Australian Population Association 1988) is appropriately titled 'The selfishness of women', as conservatives saw increasing autonomy for women, particularly control over their own fertility, as undermining the family and the future of the new nation.

Another feature of the late nineteenth century in western societies was the growth of the middle class and of middle class values in relation to the family. Foremost among these were the values of prudence, aspiration and social acceptance. These are epitomised by the emergence of discussion about the proper time to marry. This debate of the 1860s and 1870s in England was prominent in the colonies by the 1880s. It was considered improper to marry until a couple were able to live at a respectable standard. Business houses, for example, prevented their clerks from marrying until they had reached an age and salary at which they could maintajn a family at a level appropriate to the standing of the firm. Middle-class values were extended into the working class in the prosperous 1880s with the reward for prudence being access to a worker's cottage. As a consequence, marriages occurred at relatively late ages and a relatively high proportion of people, around 15 per cent, did not marry at all. Some thought that this prudence went too far; the issue of 'Why won't our young men marry?' was debated in the middle class press of the time (McDonaId 1974).

The long period of relative prosperity ended in Australia with the collapse of the 1880s property boom and the severe depression in the 1890s. Better economic times did not return until the 1920s. As a consequence of the depression and the First World War, the liberalising of personal and family values largely stalled, although the birth rate continued to decline throughout this period. Again, the values of aspiration and acceptance flourished, marked in the arena of family values by the emergence of 'scientific parenting' or the science of being a good wife and mother. A mother was to be judged on and held responsible for the successful development of her children and for her husband's happiness.

The era witnessed the emergence of the 'traditional' family in which a woman devoted all of her time to the care of her husband and children. So that her children would be successful, a wife and mother placed emphasis on the quality of children as distinct from their quantity (Reiger 1985). In Australia, the Harvester Judgement in 1906 entrenched the notion of the traditional family through the creation of the basic wage-the foundation of wagesetting policy until the 1970s. The basic wage was an amount considered sufficient for a man to support a wife and three children at a basic level. For many years, arguments against the basic wage system revolved around the fact that it was paid to men who did not have families, not the fact that it was paid to men whose wives also worked.

During the 1920s, with the return of economic prosperity, a relatively new aspect of personal autonomy became more widely accepted. This involved a sexual revolution especially centred on the culture of young single people. Intimacy and the quality of relationships were promoted. The new medium of film helped to market such a perspective.

The birth rate continued to decline and, with the onset of economic depression in the 1930s, fell to levels below long-term replacement. Marriage was also delayed to very late ages in the 1930s. Again, the liberalising of personal values stalled while people dealt with the economic imperative of unemployment. The attention of social reformers was concentrated on the public sphere rather than the private, especially on the relief of unemployment.

A framework for considering contemporary family values

The preceding discussion has identified four broad value orientations within which western and Australian family values changed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They are autonomy, intimacy, aspiration and acceptance. Autonomy is the individual's capacity for self-direction; that is, the extent to which they are able to determine their own patterns of behaviour and their life paths. Individuals have a strong need for intimacy with others and, especially, one particular other. As social beings, they have a need for love, affection, familiarity, friendship and sexual intimacy. Individuals have aspirations for success and achievement, both for themselves and for their children. Aspirations can vary widely but commonly include education, occupation, housing, both economic and personal security, and having a family and children. Individuals seek social acceptance for the paths that they choose. Most important is acceptance from the immediate circle of family and friends, but acceptance in terms of the broader values or morality of the society or sub-culture is also important.

These value orientations are all expressed as individual needs as distinct from communal needs. In the following discussion, changes in family and relationship behaviour in the West and in Australia in the past 50 years are seen as 'explorations' in which societies have attempted to reconcile the conflicting needs of individuals for personal autonomy, intimacy, aspiration and acceptance without moving too far or too quickly from the prevailing social and economic structure or the prevailing idealised family morality (or ideology). Changing behaviours are described as exploratory because it is evident from the perspective of historical hindsight that some. attempts at compromise between the liberal and the conservative have failed and new directions have been sought.

In this framework, social structures or institutions are primarily elements of conservatism, while individual needs are primarily elements of liberalism. The term 'liberal' is used in preference to 'progressive', as applied by van de Kaa (1987), because 'liberal' better conveys the notion that future directions will be the result of exploratory processes rather than a predetermined path. 'Liberal' also better accommodates the coexistence of a plurality of values within the same society.

The era of familism: 1940-70

At the end of the 1930s couples married at relatively late ages; a high proportion, around 15 per cent of people, did not marry at all; the divorce rate was low; the birth rate was low; and most married women were not in paid employment. In 1933, for example, the labour force participation rate for married women of working age was only 5 per cent.

With the onset of the Second World War the youth culture that had surfaced in the 1920s re-emerged, seemingly fostered by the emphasis on youth that the war itself provided. The younger generation had a greater freedom to socialise with each other. The need for intimacy, the thought that someone cared especially about you, was stimulated by the prevailing uncertainty. This, combined with the wartime sense of 'now or never', led to a sharp drop in the age at which people married. Most contemporary observers considered that this was a passing phenomenon stimulated by the social disruption of the war. A return to a more prudent approach was predicted for the post-war years (McDonald 1974).

Instead of a return to former patterns of behaviour, however, the war ushered in a new era of familism in which people married at unprecedentedly early ages and the proportion who married rose almost to levels which applied in eastern countries. The marriage boom stimulated the well-known post-war baby boom. While the baby boom was largely the result of the shift to early marriage, women during this era had more children than did their predecessors in the 1930s and 1940s. Divorce rates actually fell during the 1950s from the somewhat higher levels that applied in the immediate post-war years.

Marriage in these years was the rite of passage which signified independence from the parent generation. Thus young people saw early marriage as their path to autonomy from parents .. At the same time, it met their needs for sexual intimacy in the only way that was then socially acceptable. Economic conditions were such that occupational aspirations for men could be pursued and economic security seemed assured for the family as a whole. In the early years of this trend there was a housing shortage, which meant that many young couples began their marriages by sharing their housing with other family members, but most saw this, correctly, as a temporary situation. Societal values were also adjusted to provide approval for the new pattern of behaviour. Ehrenreich (1983), for example, reports that academic psychologists in the 1950s defined people as deviant if they did not want to marry and have children, or if they wanted to divorce. Thus not only was early marriage acceptable behaviour, it also became desirable behaviour. This was also the time at which attachment theory came to prominence (Bowlby 1952). Mirroring Freud's theory of maternal deprivation, Bowlby stated that the significant other to whom a child related could only be the child's mother (or mother substitute). The father's role in the child's life was to be the breadwinner and to keep the mother in a 'harmonious, contented mood'.

To the structural-functional sociologists of the 1950s the modern nuclear family of father, mother and children, with the mother not in paid employment, was better equipped than other family forms to operate in the modern economy which revolved around individual achievement and social and geographic mobility. This family type was seen to have emerged through a process of differentiation as social units became more specialised in modernising societies (Parsons and Bales 1955). Thus the ideal of the breadwinner model of the family was reaffirmed.

The reasons for this new era of familism are a matter of speculation, but it is evident that early family formation was supported by a sustained period of economic growth. In this climate there was less need for young people to be cautious about the future. With a low rate of unemployment and low interest rates, housing affordability was generally not a problem for most young people. Large-scale industry moved to the edges of the major cities and working class people moved to the fringes of the city as new housing spread across the paddocks and market gardens. One of the most important of all Australian family values, that of owning a detached house with its own backyard, was greatly reinforced during this era.

There may also have been psychological dimensions to the era of familism. Perhaps, after several decades of war and economic depression, there was a sense of wishing to 'perfect' the private sphere of life, to live out the idealised morality of the nuclear family (McDonald 1974). For the individual, the emphasis was on aspiration and acceptance, but early marriage was also seen as providing autonomy and intimacy.

The period following the Second World War was also marked by a change in the composition of immigration to Australia. Very large numbers of people arrived from non-English-speaking European countries, initially from Eastern Europe and later from Southern Europe. These people brought with them family values and structures which were different from those of Britain and Western Europe. Hajnal (1965), for example, has shown that family behaviour east of a line drawn from Leningrad to Trieste was different from that to the west of this line. To the east, people married at much younger ages and often lived in extended family households. The new western marriage pattern was therefore not so new to those from the east.

The movement from Eastern Europe contained a considerable excess of single men, and many of these men married Australian women of British origin. The ensuing 'shortage' of single women led to very high rates of marriage for women. Less than 5 per cent of women in this generation never married compared to around 9 per cent of men (McDonald 1974). The 'shortage' also promoted somewhat earlier marriage among Australian women.

It is arguable that the extended family patterns brought by the new immigrants may have stimulated a stronger sense of value attached to the extended family more generally. There was an ambivalence in the way that some Australians of western origin viewed the extended family patterns of the new immigrants·. On the one hand they were opposed to interference in the affairs of young couples by the older generation; on the other, they admired and envied the caring and support that was provided through extended families, and the strong sense of family that the new immigrants had.

However, there was also a lack of tolerance or understanding for 'unusual' family arrangements which had arisen through the disruption of the lives of many Eastern European immigrants and for the many men who remained single.

The pattern of early family formation and low divorce rates continued through most of the 1960s. By 1971, almost one-third of all Australian women had married in their teenage years. Early marriage, at the time, was associated with a strong likelihood of the woman being pregnant at the time of the marriage. In the latter part of the 1960s, about one-quarter of all women marrying for the first time were pregnant at the time of their marriage (McDonald 1988). The total fertility rate (average number of births per woman based on the age-specific birth rates of a given year) was still close to three births per woman in 1971. The breadwinner model of the family was supported by the continuance of the system of the basic wage and, until 1966, women, on marriage, were still required to resign from the Australian Public Service.

But the seeds of change were already evident as early as the 1950s. Although many women had worked during the war, most were obliged to return to their homes afterwards to free their jobs for men. Nevertheless, the labour force participation rate for Australian women in the prime working ages increased during the 1950s from around 8 per cent to around 20 per cent. The wartime experience of paid employment for women seems to have had a more lasting impact. The trend to higher labour force participation was led by women from Eastern and Southern Europe who, as the 1961 census showed, were much more likely to be in the workforce than women of western origin (CBCS 1967, p.268). This may be another instance where the behaviour of the new immigrants had a more general impact. In relation to men, Ehrenreich (1983) has described the beginnings in the 1950s of a flight from commitment, made manifest in the so-called 'beat' generation.

A surge of expression for personal autonomy then burst out in the 1960s, particularly among the younger generation. This initially found expression in many public causes such as nuclear disarmament, resistance to the war in Vietnam, civil rights in the United States, opposition to apartheid and the more general promotion of human rights. However, almost simultaneously, demands arose for greater personal autonomy for individuals in the private sphere. This included access to abortion and contraception, no-fault divorce, decriminalisation of homosexual relationships, the lifting of employment restrictions on married women, changes in the philosophy of education towards creative thinking by the individual, and parenting which provided a right for the child to be heard.

The 1960s were the time of debate, the 1970s the time of widespread implementation of new individual rights. From the perspective of values, this shift has been described by some observers as a shift to selfish individualism or narcissism and its proponents have been labelled as the 'me generation' (for example, Lasch 1980). While it is true that greater personal autonomy provides more scope for the moral value of 'selfish' individualism to apply, it is important to point out that the concept of autonomy refers only to the individual having the capacity for self-direction: From this perspective, the idealistic aim of the reformers of the 1960s and 1970s was to achieve 'selfless' individualism; that is, to produce a world of competent, autonomous individuals who would relate to each other, not in prescribed ways, but through negotiation and respect for each other's humanity.

Feminism and western family change

While the value shift towards greater personal autonomy in the 1960s and 1970s can be seen in general terms, its most important expression has been in the form of the continuing feminist movement. Feminism, in this instance defined simply as equal rights for women, has had profound effects on families in western countries in the past 30 years. It is associated with the shift to much later ages at marriage, greater access to reliable means of control over fertility for all women, declines in birth rates, alternative living arrangements, increases in divorce rates, shifts in public policy to support· the labour force participation of women, increased educational opportunities for women, and redefinition of the respective roles of men and women.

In Australia there have been a number of major milestones in the feminist movement: the setting up of the Women's Bureau by the Federal Government (1963); the ending of the requirement that married women resign from public sector employment on marriage (1966); the decriminalisation of abortion (Victoria in 1969, New South Wales in 1971); the introduction of equal pay and the abolition of the basic wage system (1972); the passage of the Child Care Act (1972); the introduction of the supporting mother's benefit (1973); the introduction of paid maternity leave in the public sector (1973); the appointment of the first women's adviser to the Prime Minister (1973); the Family Law Act (1975); the extension of maternity leave to private sector workers (1979); the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1983); sex discrimination legislation (1984); the introduction of Child Care Assistance (1984); affirmative action and equal employment opportunity legislation (1986); the introduction of the Child Support Scheme (1989); the introduction of parental leave (1991); the ratification of ILO Convention 156 on workers with family responsibilities (1991)~ Income support for families with children was increased during this period and there has been a shift towards support through periodic cash payments to the principal carer rather than tax rebates or deductions which conventionally benefit the father.

These formal changes have been accompanied by considerable changes in women's lives. In the prime working ages, labour force participation rates of married women in~reased from around 20 per cent in 1961 to 60-70 per cent in 1991. Wages of women employed full-time have risen, on average, to 80 per cent of those for men employed full-time. Education levels for women have risen to the extent that women are now more likely than men to complete secondary school and to enter university. For example, among those aged 15-19 years at the 1991 census, 69 per cent of girls and 62 per cent of boys were in full-time education. For those aged 20-24, the percentages were 14 per cent for males and 16 per cent for females. In 1961, 24 per cent of females aged 15-19 and 1 per cent of females aged 20-24 were in full-time education. A recent study found that parents, particularly working class parents, have higher educational aspirations for their daughters than for their sons (McDonald, Brownlee and Greenblat 1993).

There has been an enormous shift in the ways in which women define their life roles. In 1971, almost 80 per cent of young married women agreed that motherhood was their most important role in life, a view held by only just over 30 per cent by 1991. Also by 1991, only some 10 per cent of young married women agreed that a woman is really fulfilled only when she becomes a mother, or that important decisions should be made by the husband (Edgar and Glezer 1992). The 1970s picture of the young mother isolated without transport in the outer suburbs was turned on its head in the 1980s as women in the suburbs went out to work and obtained their own driving licences and their own cars. For example, in five outer suburban areas included in the Australian Living Standards Study conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, only 14 per cent of mothers whose husbands worked were left at home without a car during the day. Sixty per cent of these families had two cars and more than 90 per cent of mothers had driver's licences (unpublished data).

Nevertheless, women are still much more likely to be employed part-time than men and this reflects a preference on the part of women for part-time employment when their children are young (VandenHeuvel 1991a). On the other hand a majority of prime age men (those aged 25-54) who are employed part-time would prefer to work full-time but are unable to find full-time work (ABS 1994a). Furthermore, a study of the effects on young people of the unemployment of their parents shows that there is a significant negative impact only when the father is unemployed (Weston 1993). Thus, despite changes in the definition of women's roles and the extension of various rights to women, gender role differences within a family context are still evident.

Intimate relationships

The focus of this section is on the formation and nature of heterosexual relationships. There has been very little research into same-sex relationships in Australia; even the incidence is unknown. It is apparent, however, that Australians are now much more open about same-sex relationships and more tolerant of them than was the case prior to the 1970s. The incidence of same-sex relationships will be measured by the 1996 census. Nevertheless, for most legal purposes, same-sex relationships do not have the same level of recognition as heterosexual relationships.

The pattern of unprecedented low ages at first marriage, which applied in Australia from the 1940s through the 1960s, was dramatically reversed from the mid-1970s onwards. Between 1972 and 1991 the percentage of women married by their twentieth birthday fell from 33 per cent to 5 per cent and the percentage married by their twenty-fifth birthday fell from 83 per cent to 47 per cent (McDonald 1991b). Similar trends are evident in all other western countries.

The experiment with early marriage in the 1940-70 period prove4 to be an almost complete failure. The breakup rate for early marriages was very high, being two-thirds for those who married as teenagers. Early marriage and childbearing were seen to be antithetical to women's rising aspirations. The vulnerable position of women who had not developed an earning capacity was evident from the poverty rates among sole-parent mothers. Furthermore, economic insecurity in the 1970s meant that economic aspirations were put at risk by early childbearing. The social acceptance of early marriage collapsed in a very short period. Today, Australians marry at later ages than they have ever done before.

It can be argued that the revolution in the technology of contraception in the 1960s had a great deal to do with facilitating this change. The early marriage experiment was a compromise reached in the context of a fear of pregnancy and the shame attached to having an 'illegitimate' child. During this era babies born outside marriage were adopted out, often without the mother even seeing the child. The technological changes of the 1960s, together with liberalisation of the restrictions on abortion, gave women control, for the first time, over their own fertility without male cooperation.

From the 1970s it has become increasingly acceptable for couples to live together without being married. For example, in 1975, 16 per cent of all couples marrying had lived together beforehand; by 1992, this percentage had risen to 56 per cent (ABS 1994a). Living together, or cohabiting relationships, provide young people with autonomy from parents and the intimacy that early marriage had previously provided and, through the use of effective contraception, enable both partners to pursue work and other opportunities without the responsibilities of children.

Of course, early marriage with contraception would provide the same results and this option was experimented with for a very short period at the end of the 1960s. However, living together is also seen as providing more individual autonomy within the relationship than is the case with marriage. Indeed, research has shown that there is generally more 'separateness' in cohabiting relationships than there is in marriages, especially in respect of the organisation of finances. Those who have cohabited score more highly on a measure of individualism in relationships. Cohabiting is also associated with not being religious, with higher educational levels and with being 'western' in origin (Glezer 1993a and 1993b). By the end of the 1980s it had become the majority view in Australia that couples should live together for a time before marrying (VandenHeuvel 1991a).

Relationships, whether marriage or cohabitation, are expected to be exclusive. The idea of 'open marriage' received some currency in the 1970s, but has been largely dismissed as an affront to the ideal of intimacy in committed relationships.

Changing roles within relationships

The role of the wife and mother as principal keeper of the home and nurturer of the family, which came to prominence in the era of scientific parenting and became entrenched in the post-war era of familism, has remained. In most couple relationships the male is the principal breadwinner and the wife's income is seen as supplementary. A majority of mothers still prefer to work parttime. In the late 1980s about half of all men and women agreed that 'family life suffers when the woman has a full-time job' (Glezer 1991a; VandenHeuvel 1991b). As a consequence, women tend to have interrupted working careers and consequently lower earning power than their male partners (Beggs and Chapman 1988). In a choice between whose career will be favoured, the man's or the woman's, the man's will usually be preferred.

A traditional division of domestic tasks is still largely in place. Wives continue to do the lion's share of tasks such as laundry, cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming, cooking, grocery shopping and the dishes, while lawn mowing and household repairs are men's activities. Mothers also predominate in looking after the children, for example in caring for sick children or taking children to activities or appointments. Less traditional arrangements are more likely where the wife works full-time, and in cohabiting relationships and second marriages (Glezer 1991a; Glezer 1993a; Weston and McDonald 1991).

However, the roles of men and women are gradually changing with each successive generation. Only 20-30 per cent of men and women now support very traditional precepts such as 'a husband's job is to earn money, a wife's to look after the home and family' or 'a married woman should not attach much importance to career' (VandenHeuvel 1991b).

In the next generation (those now younger than 25 years), gender roles are likely to become much more mixed. The next generation of young women have grown up in a milieu in which their future education and career prospects have received equal attention to those of their brothers. Indeed, young women, on average, have moved in the direction of even higher qualifications than young men and, in many ways, they are being better equipped for the future labour market than some of their male counterparts. The next trend is for women to move away from the secondaryearner role and to become an equal earner or, in many cases, the primary earner. This is already observed in professional couples living in the gentrified inner suburbs of major cities.

Higher wage rates for women in the future imply adjustment in relationships. There will be many more cases where the wife will attract a higher wage than the husband and hence, where accommodation of one to the other is required, the economically rational decision will be to invest in the wife's career rather than the husband's. Rather than gender roles per se, the inequality between men and women, whatever the direction, will be the problem of the future.

An important point to be made is that attitudes about the nature of relationships in western societies are becoming increasingly pluralistic. That is, there is an extent to which couples are now able to choose their own form of relationship to suit their own particular circumstances or values.

Relationship breakdown

One of the most important manifestations of the pursuit of autonomy and intimacy for individuals has been the greater frequency and greater social acceptance of divorce. The divorce rate throughout the 1950s and most of the 1960s was fixed at around 10 per cent of marriages ending in divorce. The rate began to rise from about 1968 and, in response to the demand for a freer approach, the law was liberalised in 1975 to permit unilateral divorce following a one-year separation period. All divorces, from the perspective of the law, were to be 'no fault' divorces. In less than a decade from the point at which the divorce rate began to rise, a new threshold bf around 35-40 per cent of marriages ending in divorce was established. The sudden rise obviously reflected a pent-up demand for easier access to divorce, an eventuality which had been held in check by social attitudes during the era of familism (Carmichael and McDonald 1986).

Concomitant with the changes in the law of divorce, a new supporting mother's benefit was introduced in 1973, which provided basic income support to mothers who wished to leave an unsatisfactory relationship. Before this, women who did not have access to a basic income did not have the same opportunity as most men to leave a marriage. The decision to end the marriage is now taken unilaterally by the wife in over 50 per cent of cases, compared with only about 20 per cent of unilateral decisions by the husband, with the remaining decisions being jointly made (Harrison 1986). The children live with their mother following about 85 per cent of cases of marriage breakdown.

The legal and administrative changes have involved a loss of control by husbands over wives, a situation which has not been easily accepted by males in general and in particular by those for whom male honour is a central feature of family and social life (McDonald 1991a). As there is essentially no legal appeal against divorce and no attribution of blame, vindication is often sought through the ancillary matters-the division of property and the living arrangements and support of children. The direction of law reform at present is to 'take the heat' out of these areas of negotiation, either by making them more precisely determined (the Child Support Scheme) or by making them less adversarial (agreements about children's living arrangements).

Except for temporary rises during periods of recession the rate of divorce has remained stable since the mid-1970s. Divorce rates tend to be considerably lower for Australians of Mediterranean origin (McDonald 1991a). The importance of acceptance of or social attitudes towards divorce is evidenced by the fact that divorce occurs more commonly among those who do not practise a religion or whose parents had more liberal attitudes. Divorce is also more common among those whose parents had divorced (Glezer, Edgar and Prolisko 1992).

It seems from the little evidence available that the rate of breakdown of cohabiting relationships is very high. In a study of parents whose children were born in 1984, 20 per cent of those who were in a cohabiting relationship at the time of the birth of the child had separated within 18 months of the birth (Khoo and McDohald 1988). It is not unusual for young people today to have a series

The place of children

Over the past 200 years there has been an extension of the period of financial dependency of children on their parents. In the early tradition of the English working class, children were sent out into service when they were nine or ten years old. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, they were exploited in sweatshops and sent down the mines. This changed in the latter part of the nineteenth century with the introduction of child labour laws and compulsory education, eventually extended and policed to age 15 years. The trend towards a longer education period has received its latest boost in recent years with an increased emphasis on the completion of secondary schooling and tertiary qualifications.

In Australia, the Year 12 retention rate rose from 41 per cent in 1983 to 77 per cent in 1992 and the increase shows little sign of stopping. Retention is as high as 97 per cent in the Australian Capital Territory and 93 per cent in South Australia (DEET 1993). The expectation must be that this trend will continue to the point where education to Year 12 is near to universal. Children will thus remain children for a longer .period than ever before.

While it may have been appropriate during the eras of scientific parenting and familism to refer to the rise of the 'child-king' (Aries 1962), the call for greater personal autonomy over the past 30 years has been adult-centred. Indeed, many of the changes that have taken place have involved greater autonomy from the restrictions of the parenthood roles prescribed during the era of familism. These changes include control over fertility, employment of mothers outside the home, financial assistance for non-parental child care and easier access to divorce.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the current emphasis is on the rights of the child. For conservatives, assertion of the rights of the child means a rolling-back of the rights extended to parents in recent times. In particular, this is embodied in a call for higher levels of financial support for families who are following the traditional or breadwinner model. For liberals, assertion of child rights means extending individual rights to children, especially those in undesirable parental situations. In particular, this means providing child-related benefits which support parents in their pursuit of the opportunities that have opened up for them in the liberal reforms of the past 30 years. Both groups recognise that the increased autonomy provided to adults has caused difficulties for some children. For example, research suggests that divorce law reform has done more for parents than it has for children (Funder, forthcoming).

The child's right to be heard is at the forefront of the liberal agenda on children's rights. This refers more particularly to the right of children to be heard in legal proceedings which affect them, such as in divorce or cases of child abuse (Rayner 1992; Funder 1992), but extends also to the right of children to be heard in family decision making. This conflicts with more strongly patriarchal approaches to child rearing and child discipline. As discussed in the following section, the extension of these rights to children is also somewhat in conflict with the continued extension of financial dependency of children on their parents.

Reform necessarily focuses on the worst cases. It would not be correct in this section to provide an impression that, in general, relations between parents and children are not good in Australian families. For example, Weston and Millward (1992) report that, even for the problematic adolescent group, relations between parents and children are usually very good with low levels of tension. Also, despite the high rate of relationship breakdown, at some point in time, some 75 per cent of children are living with both their natural parents.

Young people and families

Although in the 1970s the age of full adulthood for various purposes (voting, marriage, contracts) was lowered from 21 years to 18 years, since that time full adulthood has increasingly become a financially impossible option for young people aged less than 21 years.

Governments have encouraged this trend by having two levels of social security payments below the full adult rates-a low level when the child is aged less than 18 years and an intermediate level when the child is aged less than 21 years (22 years in the case of the student Austudy allowance). Government policy now aims to have all young people aged less than 20 years in some form of training. Government allowances for young unemployed people, Austudy, apprenticeships, traineeships and even full-time youth award wages all provide support which is below the poverty line for a single person so that young people are unable to support themselves independently.

The dominant trend in the education and parenting of today's young people has been the encouragement of intellectual and social independence. This runs completely counter to the increasing financial dependency of young people on their parents (Hardey and Wolcott 1994). The situation is now extending beyond age 21. The proportion of young people aged 20-24 living with their parents increased between 1981 and 1991 from 34 per cent to 40 per cent. Even 13 per cent of young adults aged 25-29 are still at home with parents. Living at home is associated with student status; 53 per cent of students aged 20-24 are still at home compared with 37 per cent of those who are not studying.

Increased dependency on parents has also delayed the commencement of cohabiting relationships for young people. In 1971, 64 per cent of women aged 20-24 had married; in 1991, only 30 per cent were in either a marriage or a cohabiting relationship (ABS 1994a).

These changes have given rise to a new experiment in relationship formation. A small study of 23-year-olds found that the most common form of relationship for the group was to have an exclusive and intimate relationship, but not to be living with the partner (as opposed to being married, being in a cohabiting relationship or not being in a relationship at all). A majority of these young people had had sex with their partner in their parents' home with their parents' knowledge. Despite this, the same study concluded that sexual behaviour remains a very private affair and something which parents and young people are often not at ease in talking about (Hartley 1993). It seems that sex in the parents' home is accepted or tolerated where the relationship is seen to be a committed one. Parents are generally much less tolerant of casual sex. However, there is always the first time and there are many definitions of 'committed', so the potential for difficulty for young people and parents in this area is evident. Nevertheless, many parents also recognise that the greater openness associated with these relationships contrasts favourably with the more surreptitious approach they had used themselves.

Intergenerational relationships and extended family

In Australia, family is something which is owned and defined by each individual. To give a simple but common example, a child whose parents have divorced, when asked to describe his or her family, will normally include natural parents, siblings, step-parents, step-siblings and half-siblings, even though these people may live in two or more different households. The group described by the child is 'family' for that child and not for anyone else. Furthermore, the individual will define families differently for different purposes. In the simplest terms, the narrowest conception of family is that of a group of related people who live in the same household; that is, the household family. Next, there is what might be termed the sharing or supporting family. This is a group of related people who provide support to each other, whether it be practical, financial or emotional. Conventionally, in Australia, the sharing family extends across more than one household and so could be termed the extended family. Finally, there is what might be called the festive family, the wider group of family members who gather together for weddings or other festive occasions (McDonald 1995).

The great myth about Australian families is that the extended family does not exist, that we are a land of isolated nuclear families living in our separate suburban houses cut off from all other family relationships (McDonald 1992). While it is true that Australians rarely live in extended family households, over the past ten years or so research of family support networks in Australia has shown over and over again that the extended family is a very active and important force in the lives of most Australians (Kendig 1986; McCaughey 1987; d' Abbs 1991; Millward 1992).

Extended family networks in Australia are active in several spheres. Extended families commonly provide financial support for housing or other services that their members require. For example, Glezer (1991b) has observed that in the Family Formation Survey conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies 33 per cent of young people had received help from parents or parentsin- law with the deposit for a flat or house at the time the young people were getting established. In the same study 75 per cent of the respondents agreed with the statement that children should provide financial help to ageing parents when their parents are having financial difficulty.

In addition, the extended family may provide support in the form of house maintenance or other activities which sustain the family member in his or her housing. This is commonly the case with aged persons who wish to remain living separately but require assistance with some of the heavier maintenance tasks. Indeed, the Australian ideal seems to be for family members of different generations to live separately but relatively close to each other. For example, in the Australian Living Standards Study half of all surveyed families stated that moving away from extended family was an obstacle to moving to a new locality in order to improve employment circumstances (Brownlee 1994).

The University of Melbourne Carers Project interviewed people who had the main caring responsibility for someone who was aged or had a long-term illness, disability or other problem. Almost half the carers did not live with the person requiring care and in a quarter of cases the person requiring care lived alone. The relationship of the care-giver to the cared-for was dominated by the three basic family relationships: adult child (41%), parent (26%) and spouse (19%). Other relatives or friends made up just 14 per cent of the care-givers. The study shows the importance of both extended family and co-resident family members in the provision of care. In order of frequency, care-givers provided the following forms of assistance: organising appointments, taking the person out, managing money, administering medication/changing dressings, bathing, dressing, assistance with incontinence, help with moving about the house, and help with eating (Schofield and Herrman 1993).

A longitudinal study of the experiences of a sample of Adelaide women pregnant for the first time concluded that throughout the pregnancy and after the birth of the child new parents had received considerable support from their own families, particularly their mothers (Baum 1990).

The extended family is also extremely active in the provision of child care. Grandparents are the most common source of child care while parents are at work and by far the most common· source of child care when parents wish to go out at night or on weekends. Again, this is made possible by the generation with young children choosing to live relatively close to the grandparent generation. Interestingly, and contrary to popular belief, the pattern of child care support being provided by grandparents is even· more common in the outer areas of our cities than in the inner and middle areas. Research has shown that young couples settling on the fringes of the city have, in fact, simply moved out one or two suburbs from where they grew up. This again underlines the importance that people attach to the maintenance of family support networks (Millward and Matches 1994).


This chapter has attempted to describe the pathways along which Australian society has travelled in reaching its present patterns of family values and behaviours. The pathways are not dissimilar to those followed by other western societies. In broad terms, today's family values reflect the continued extension of individual rights to adults, including the right to determine the ways in which they live their lives. As a result there is a plurality of family values in Australia, ranging from the 'conservative to the liberal. Unquestionably, however, the general trend has been in the direction of liberalisation; that is, the emphasis has been on the rights of the individual family member rather than on the rights of the family as a group unit.

Australia's many immigrant groups fit at various points along this line from conservatism to liberalism. Immigrants from western countries such as Britain, New Zealand, Germany and the Netherlands, in general, have been in the forefront of the liberal trend. Those from Italy and Greece, on the other hand, have been much slower to adopt the new patterns of behaviour. These latter two groups have much lower divorce rates and earlier marriages, and their young people are more likely to stay at home until they are married. Nevertheless, liberalisation has been the direction for all groups.

Four individual values have been at the forefront of change. These are the values of autonomy, intimacy, aspiration and acceptance. Observed trends can be viewed as explorations in which society attempts to provide its members with a desirable balance between these often conflicting values. Change has been driven by a desire to extend the rights of adults and it is only more recently that attention has shifted to the rights of children and young people within the family context.

For adults in heterosexual relationships a relative degree of stability is apparent. Birth rates and divorce rates have been almost constant for 20 years, while almost all women now spend some time in the paid labour force after they marry or have children. Cohabiting relationships have achieved such a high degree of acceptability that they are now considered by a majority to be a preferred option prior to marriage. Marriage and childbearing are occurring later and later, but most young Australians (about 80 per cent) see themselves marrying and having children at some time. For the future, the major change is likely to be fewer gender-specific roles within couple relationships. While those in homosexual relationships do not face the same threat from the law which applied 20 years ago, social acceptance of homosexuality remains somewhat ambivalent.

This outline of values and behaviour in respect of Australian families indicates the existence of a pluralistic system of family values. With some exceptions, such as the practice of female genital mutilation and arranged marriages of young people, the values of most communities are broadly acceptable within this pluralism of values. Difficulties may arise, however, particularly for settlers of non-western origin, as the following chapters show in some detail.