Diversity and change in Australian families

Diversity and change in Australian families

Statistical profiles

David de Vaus

Report – April 2004

Family types - summary

Couple families

  • There has been a rise in the percentage of couple families. In 2001 they represented 35.6 per cent of all families, compared with 28.7 per cent in 1982. Further, of couple families with and without children, in 2001, 43.2 per cent had no children living with them - an increase from 37 per cent in 1982. By far the largest proportion of child-free couples are older people whose children have left home.
  • Couple families with dependent children now form a minority of households, families, and couple families and represent a declining percentage of families (a 20 per cent decline between 1976 and 2001). However, couple families represent the vast majority of families in which children live.
  • Of couple families with dependent children 90 per cent are intact, 5.5 per cent are step-families and 4.4 per cent are blended families.
  • Same sex couples represent a small proportion of household couples (0.5 per cent), with 20 per cent of female same sex couple households and 5 per cent of male same sex couple households containing children.

Lone parent families

  • Lone parent families, including those with dependent children, are becoming more common (7.1 per cent in 1969 to 22.3 per cent in 2003 of families with dependent children). Almost 27 per cent of children spend some time up to the age of 18 living in a lone parent family.
  • The main route to lone parenting is via relationship breakdown.

Other family types

  • 10.7 per cent of families with a child under 18 are step or blended families. Children in step or blended families mainly live with their mother.
  • 1.8 per cent of households contained two or more families. Indigenous Australians (12.6 per cent) and Australians born in Asia, Southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa are much more likely to live in multi-family households.
  • 25 per cent of households consist of a person living on their own, and almost one in ten people live on their own. Levels of living alone are increasing, and the rate of growth is much more marked amongst younger than older age groups.

Partnering and separation

  • Cohabitation is becoming a more common form of partnering (72 per cent of people live with their partner before marriage), but cohabiting relationships tend to be less stable than marriages.
  • A third of all marriages now consist of at least one person who has previously been married.
  • Estimates of divorce vary but indicate between 32 per cent and 46 per cent of marriages will end in divorce.
  • Of those who divorce the average length of time until final separation was 8.3 years.
  • A smaller proportion of divorces involve children under 18 (51 per cent) than in 1971 (67 per cent). Of these divorcing families over a quarter involved children 0-4 years old.
  • Those who cohabit before marriage are at greater risk of marriage breakdown due partly to longer time in the relationship but mostly to the characteristics of those who cohabit (more likely to have divorced parents, less religious, lower education, and of English speaking background).

Having children

  • Australian women have, on average, 1.7 children. The total fertility rate for Australian women has halved in the last 50 years.
  • More than a quarter of men and women have fewer children than they would ideally like to have.
  • Australian women are having children later. The median age at which women have their first baby was 27.3 years of age in 2000. Current teenage fertility is the lowest since 1921.
  • Around 2 per cent of all births are due to assisted conception technologies.
  • Women from professional white-collar occupations have fewer children than those from lower level white collar and blue-collar occupations. The earlier women have left school the more children they have.


  • Accurate information on the rate of induced abortions and the characteristics of those who have them is hard to obtain. South Australia is the only state for which incidence rates are available.
  • In South Australia in 1999, for every 1000 women aged 15-44 approximately 17.8 (1.8 per cent) had an abortion.
  • 2.4% of women aged 15-19; 3.4% of women aged 20-24; and 2.3% of women aged 20-29 had an abortion.
  • Approval of abortion has increased in the last two decades among both women and men in all age groups.
    • In 2001, 58 per cent of Australians believe a woman should be able to get an abortion readily (increasing from 39 per cent in 1987).
    • Only 4 per cent thought abortion was always wrong.
    • Men and women are equally likely to support a woman's right to obtain ready action to abortion.
    • In general younger age groups are more supportive of a woman having ready access to abortion.

Childhood transitions

  • The majority of children do not experience transitions in their living arrangements in their first 18 years.
  • Of children born in 2000 approximately 87 per cent were born to couples. 11.6 per cent of births were to lone mothers, and 1.4 per cent to widowed, separated, or divorced women not with a partner.
  • In 2001, just under 77 per cent of children born from 1981 to 1985 had spent all of their first 15 years living with both natural parents. This represents a decline from 82 per cent of those born from 1963 to 1975, the over 90 per cent of children born from 1946-1962 who lived with both parents till the age of 15 or older.
  • Almost one million children have a natural parent living elsewhere.
  • Of children born into an intact family 8.5 per cent have experienced their parents' final separation by the age of 5. About 19 per cent have experienced it by the age of 12 and over a quarter have experienced their parents' separation by 18.

Transition of young people into adulthood

  • Young people are staying at school and in further study longer.
  • Home ownership, while lower among young people in their 20s is at similar rates for people in the 30s as the previous generation.
  • Many young people return to the family home throughout their 20s to study or for financial or emotional support.
  • Many combine study and work so the transition to the labour force is less distinct than before.


  • The proportion of household expenditure on necessary items is on average - income tax (18.5 per cent), food (13 per cent), transport (12.4 per cent) housing costs (11.4 per cent), recreation and health (9.5 per cent).
  • Younger families pay more for housing due to increases in housing costs (80 per cent in real terms since the mid 1970s) and households with older children spend more on transport than other households.
  • Approximately 15 per cent of households regularly spend more than they earn. Lone parents with children under 15 the most likely to be struggling, with lone younger people also more likely to have difficulties.
  • A third of households save money most weeks.

Work and family

  • In 7 per cent of couple families with dependent children, neither parent is employed. 57 per cent of couple families had both parents employed (22 per cent both full time). 36 per cent of families with dependent children had only one income earner.
  • Most fathers (92.4 per cent) with dependent children in the home are employed. Two thirds of couple mothers are also employed - a higher rate than for lone mothers (30 per cent).
  • 15 per cent of mothers with pre-school children are employed full time. Employment rates of couple and lone mothers increase substantially when the youngest child starts school. This rate has increased in both cases for part time work since the mid 1980s but more so for couple mothers. Full time employment of couple mothers has increased.
  • Employment levels for lone mothers are lower than for couple mothers but increase as children grow, and get closer to that of couple mothers once the child turns 16.
  • Time use studies show women do more domestic work and childcare while men spend more time in paid employment.

Caring for Children

  • Mothers spend more time caring for children than fathers even when both parents are employed full time.
  • Mothers in couples spend on average 5.8 hours a day on childcare activities compared with 2.3 hours spent by fathers. Lone Mothers spend a similar amount of time on child care activities (5.4 hours) as couple mothers.

Caring for children following relationship breakdown

  • Only 3 per cent to 10 per cent of children are cared for jointly by both parents.
  • About 41 per cent of children had regular contact with the non-resident parent at least once a fortnight.
  • Approximately 30 per cent of children have no contact with their non-resident parent and loss of contact is more likely with older than younger children.
  • Overall fathers are dissatisfied with the amount of contact with their children.


  • Since 1984 the percentage of children under 12 years of age using formal childcare doubled from 12 per cent to 25 per cent. This increase was sharpest in the 0-2 age group were formal care trebled.
  • There were three times as many children aged 5-11 in before and after school care in 2002 as in 1984.
  • Surveys on attitudes to child care found relatively little support for all day formal child care 5 days a week for children under 3, with 64 per cent disagreeing with it in 2001. There was a fair degree of approval and acceptance of half-day care for toddlers (44 per cent approval in 1996-97).

Caring for older people and people with disabilities

  • 2.4 per cent of Australians are 'primary carers'. Of these, 89 per cent are caring for a close family member - 43 per cent for their partner.
  • A further 10.2 per cent of Australians assist with care.
  • Women provide more care than men.
    • Three quarters of disabled children are cared for by their mother.
    • Of parents receiving care, 85 per cent receive it from their daughter.
    • Men who are primary carers mainly care for their partner.

Book contents

Foreword, About the author, Acknowledgements, Main surveys used, Preface

  1. Family and household types
  2. Couples without children at home
  3. Couples with children
  4. Lone parent families
  5. Step families and blended families
  6. Extended families and multifamily households
  7. Same-sex couples
  8. Adoption and adoptive families
  9. Living alone
  10. Cohabitation
  11. Transitions in childhood (written with Mathew Grey)
  12. Transition of young people to adulthood
  13. Marriage and remarriage
  14. Having children
  15. Divorce and separation
  16. Caring
  17. Spending
  18. Time-use
  19. Working
  20. List of references

Publication details

Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, April 2004
335 pp.
0 642 395115 2
Suggested citation:

de Vaus, D. (2004). Diversity and change in Australian families: Statistical profiles. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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