Families in Australia 2011

Sticking together in good and tough times
Research summary – March 2011

Demographic and social change

As in all other developed countries, Australia's population is ageing, with the key drivers being low fertility rates and increased life expectancy. The representation of older people has increased progressively over the last century (from 4% in 1901 to 14% in 2010).1 In contrast, the proportion of the population aged under 15 years fell from 35% in 1901 to 24% in 1940-45, then increased to 30% in 1957-66 (the peak of the "Baby Boom"), and fell thereafter to 19% in 2007-10. These two groups are traditionally considered as dependants.2

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has projected that, by 2056, the older dependent-aged people will represent 23-25% of the Australian population, while the younger dependent-aged group will make up only 15-18%; by 2101, 25-28% will be in the older group and 14-17% will be in the young group.3 The development of strategies to minimise and handle the associated economic and social implications of having an ageing population represents a key priority, explored since 2002-03 by the Australian Government in its Intergenerational Report.4

Despite its challenges, an ageing population is also a prime reflection of a nation's success in preventing maternal and infant mortality and improving health, thereby increasing life expectancy. It also has profound implications within and beyond families.

Demographic changes such as these have marked impacts, not only on the nation, but also on families. In addition, extended periods of participation in education and increased involvement, especially of women, in paid employment, contribute to shaping patterns of couple formation and dissolution, which today differ substantially from the patterns apparent during most of the 20th century. Family size has become smaller, and many women now become mothers much later than was the case for previous generations. Many children also live with only one parent and have the other parent living elsewhere.

Marriage rates have fallen markedly in recent decades, while cohabitation rates have increased. In fact, marriage rates in recent years have been lower than at any time in the 20th century. In 2006, fewer than 50% of the Australian population aged 15 years and older were in a registered marriage, falling from 65% in 1971. And those who marry tend to do so at a later age than in the past. The median age at first marriage rose between 1971 to 2008 from 23.4 years to 29.6 years for men and from 21.1 years to 27.7 years for women. On the other hand, cohabitation has become increasingly common. According to the 2006 Census, 15% of couples were cohabiting rather than married, increasing from 6% in 1986. Cohabitation is particularly common among young people; in fact, people under 25 years are more likely to be in a cohabiting relationship than to be married.

The rise in the divorce rate during the second half of the 20th century, especially after the introduction of the Family Law Act 1975, represents one of the most spectacular changes in family relationships in Australia. The Act allowed for "no-fault" divorce based on just one ground - "irretrievable breakdown" - as measured by at least 12 months of separation. Current trends suggest that one in three marriages will end in divorce.5 It is also worth noting that just under half of all divorces occur among couples with children under 18 years old. This means that, each year, around 50,000 such children experience the divorce of their parents.

These changes form the backdrop to family and community life in contemporary Australia. They frame the economic and social participation of families, the supports they give and receive, and their economic and subjective wellbeing.

Another factor that sets the scene for contemporary family life is the evolving cultural character of Australia. Since Federation, the Australian population has changed dramatically in terms of cultural background. Ethnic diversity accelerated after World War II, and since this period Australia has become one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. According to the 2006 Census, migrants from the United Kingdom and Ireland represent 31% of all migrants who arrived in Australia before 1991, but only 12% of those who arrived subsequently. In contrast, the proportions of migrants from Asian countries rose from 18% to 42% across these two periods. Because they have settled in Australia over a shorter period of time than other immigrants, the Asian-born population tends to be younger than the other overseas-born population, and is especially concentrated in the 25-45 year age bracket (41% compared with 28% of migrants from other countries).

Only a small proportion of the Australian population identify as Indigenous (2.3% according to the 2006 Census).6 While this report focuses on Australians in general, it is important to acknowledge some of the ways in which Indigenous people and others in Australia differ. The Indigenous people's spiritual attachment to the land and its flora and fauna and their distinctive forms of art have gained increasing recognition within and beyond Australia. Probably less well known is the fact that the meaning  of the family systems and structures of Indigenous Australians in some remote communities not only differs between groups, but also cannot readily be aligned with the system understood in the dominant culture in Australia.7 Indigenous Australians have a larger number of children than other Australians, and are more likely to live in multi-family and multi-generational households. They are also more likely to live in regional and remote areas. Indigenous Australians tend to fare considerably less well than other Australians in terms of a range of social, economic, and health indicators, and closing this gap represents an important policy focus of all governments in Australia.


1 In this document, the term "older people" is used to refer to those who are aged 65 years and over. Percentages have been rounded to the nearest whole number throughout.

2 Traditionally, the "working-age" population is defined as 15-64 years, and those in the other two age groups (under 15 years and older than 64 years) are treated as "dependants". However, as illustrated in this report, young people aged 15-19 years are most commonly engaged solely in education, and substantial proportions of men and women aged 60-64 years are not employed.

3 ABS (2008).

4 The Treasury (various years). The Intergenerational Report has been published in 2002-03, 2007 and 2010.

5 ABS (2001).

6 ABS (2010e).

7 Morphy (2006).