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Family Matters No. 29 - August 1991

The most important person in the world

A look at contemporary family values
Audrey VandenHeuvel


The author asks the question whether, given changes in family trends and given the image of society often portrayed in the media, 'does the average Australian really think that the most important person in the world is him- or herself?' Using data from the National Social Science Survey, of which the Australian Institute of Family Studies was one sponsor, she looks at the values that individuals hold, and where they feel family fits into their lives. She focuses on four areas of family values: marriage, divorce, children, and women's employment. Also highlighted are differences by gender. Findings show that 'the family and its various components are strong and vital; they are highly valued by most Australians'.

The Institute recently co-sponsored a survey on Australian family values. Here, Audrey VandenHeuvel, AIFS Fellow, highlights men's and women's views on marriage, divorce, women's employment, and raising children.

A current television advertisement uses the sales pitch 'for the most important person in the world'. The implication is that this description applies to the individual. Advertising campaigns are but one sign in our society of the fact that we are in the midst of an age of increasing individualism. The price society has had to pay for such individualism, some suggest, is the demise of the family. Trends over the most recent decades add credence to this trade-off. Unmarried cohabitation has become commonplace, as has divorce. Marriages are being delayed until later ages. Couples are choosing to limit the number of children they have, often to two or fewer. Decreasing numbers of mothers stay home to care for their young children.

Yet given these changes in family trends and given the image of society often portrayed in the media, does the average Australian really think that the most important person in the world is him- or herself? To answer this question we need to look at the values that individuals hold, and to find out where they feel family fits into their lives.

A recent survey, of which the Institute was one sponsor, allows us to take this look. The National Social Science Survey was completed in 1989 by a team of researchers at the Research School of Social Sciences (Australian National University). A random sample of 4511 adult Australians participated, of whom 51 per cent were female. The data set is thus nationally representative and recent, providing us with an up-to-date view of Australian values.

Four areas of family values are highlighted in this article: marriage, divorce, children, and women's employment. Also highlighted are differences by gender. If men and women do not agree on family values, we could assume that there would be a certain amount of disagreement and tension in families about various aspects of family life.

In the past, differences by gender were clear. For instance, the advantages of marriage and divorce were different for husbands and wives, as were the values each placed upon them. Another obvious example of a past tension between the sexes concerns the role of women in and out of the home. With change over time, have men's and women's views converged and equalised? To indicate if they have or not, percentages by gender are presented only in instances when there is a statistically significant difference. When no such difference is found, the results for the sample as a whole are presented. However, the latter situation occurs rarely; men's and women's views still differ on matters of family values. (Note that no attempt is made in this article to explain the differences that are found.)

When asking someone for their view on various family values, most people have an opinion - - they either agree or disagree with particular viewpoints. Thus, much of the writing on family values focuses on this comparison. But there are nearly always some people who 'sit on the fence' and are neutral. This may be because the issue is 'too hard' for a simple one-sided answer, or that some do not feel strongly one way or another. Which ever the case, when simply comparing the number of those who agree with those who disagree, the indecisive people are left out of the discussion. A better and more informative way to discuss family values is to keep them in as a third comparison group. This then gives a clearer and truer picture of values held by 'average' Australians. In the data set used in this study most of the family values questions included the response options of: strongly agree, agree, neither agree or disagree, disagree, or strongly disagree. These were recorded to allow comparisons between those who agree, those who disagree, and those who are neutral.

The Ties That Bind

Do the 'ties that bind' bind too tightly, causing people to reject marriage as a way of life for today? If so, we would expect to find a favouring of alternative life styles such as permanent singleness or unmarried cohabitation. But we don't find that. Survey participants were asked to give advice to young men and women as to ideal living arrangements; four options were given - - live alone without a steady partner, live with a steady partner without marrying, marry after cohabiting for a time, and marry without living together first. The results show that young men and women were given the same advice. Half the respondents suggested that the young people live with a steady partner for a while, and then marry; one- third said go straight into marriage.

It is interesting that when advising the women, men were more likely to suggest that women marry after cohabiting; women were more likely to suggest the traditional marriage. Regardless, though, of whether men or women were answering, the vast majority saw marriage as the ideal arrangement. Marriage is still highly popular. The tolerance for unmarried cohabitation is also notable; contemporary Australians accept the existence of cohabitation to such an extent that many would advise young people to try it for a while.

Alternative life styles are not hailed by the majority. Only 15 per cent of respondents suggested that the ideal was living together permanently or living alone.

Australians obviously still see marriage as quite attractive. One reason for this seems to be for the companionship it provides. Over two- thirds of the sample agreed that the companionship of marriage was more important than personal freedom. As might be expected, marital status makes a difference - - 55 per cent of those who were not married and 73 per cent of those who were married agreed. Only 10 per cent of all the respondents disagreed that the companionship of marriage is more important than personal freedom.

Another attraction of marriage for many seems to be happiness. The most common response to a question on whether married people are happier than unmarried people is 'yes'; half of the men and significantly fewer (40 per cent) of the women gave this answer. However, for a sizeable number (21 per cent of the men and 29 per cent of the women), marriage was not seen as the happier state. Of course, those who were married were more likely to agree than those who were not married. A certain degree of uncertainty is obvious here with respect to the happiness that marriage brings; about 30 per cent of the respondents neither agreed nor disagreed.

It would seem that the more 'practical' reasons for marriage - - such as having children and gaining financial security - - are not viewed as the most important reasons for marrying. Over two-thirds (68 per cent of men and 73 per cent of women) did not think that the main advantage of marriage was its provision of financial security. Only about 13 per cent thought it was. Marriage is also not simply seen as a means for having children as 60 per cent of the men and two-thirds of the women disagreed with the statement that the main purpose of marriage is to have children. Somewhat more than 20 per cent of the respondents thought it was.

It seems that the ties that bind are desired ones. Even though the meaning of marriage has changed over the years from one of signalling the initiation of sexual relations and co-residence with a partner (McDonald 1984) to one of being more of a legalisation of a partnership, most people prefer it. The large majority would counsel young people that marriage is preferable, but many would also suggest marriage preceded by cohabitation.

Cohabitation is clearly gaining acceptance, but not as an alternative to marriage. Instead, its place in today's society is more likely to be one of a step in the dating process or even simply an alternative to living alone (Rindfuss and VandenHeuvel 1990). Gender differences still exist with regard to views on marriage, with men being more likely than women to think marriage provides greater happiness. They are also less likely than women to disagree that major advantages of marriage are financial security and having children.

Unbinding the Ties

Given the high value Australians still put on marriage, how is the increasingly common activity of divorce viewed? It seems that ideals with regard to the advantages of marriage are tempered with the realism that things can go wrong and that the 'ties that bind' sometimes do need to be undone.

Is a bad marriage better than no marriage at all? The overwhelming majority (91 per cent of the women and 94 per cent of the men) said 'no'. Further, given the scenario of a couple with an unhappy marriage, the majority thought that it was better for the children if the parents do part ways. But men (51 per cent) were more reluctant than the women (67 per cent) to say this. A considerable number (33 per cent of the males and 17 per cent of the females) said it would be better to stay together for the sake of the children.

When it came to considering the effect of the divorce on the couple, again most (58 per cent of the men and two thirds of the women) thought it would be better to divorce than stay in an unhappy marriage. Yet, just over 20 per cent of the men and 12 per cent of the women thought it would be better for the partners themselves if they did stay together.

The majority agreed that the nature of divorce laws affects how marriage is viewed. Fifty-nine per cent of the men and women agreed that couples do not take marriage seriously enough when divorce is easily available; about a quarter disagreed. The view for many thus seems to be that if the legal system lets people out of marriage easily, why should people worry so much about going into it?

The ease with which divorce can and should be obtained is a controversial issue, as was reflected by the heated debate surrounding the passage of the no-fault divorce laws in the mid 1970s. Eight out of every ten respondents thought that it is easy to get a divorce in Australia. But people are divided over whether they want the laws tightened. Forty-one per cent thought they should not be. Only slightly fewer (34 per cent of the men and 37 per cent of the women) thought they should be.

One of the factors that may be causing the split regarding the ease of getting a divorce is that certain conditions seem to make divorce more or less acceptable - - one such condition being whether children are involved. When asked to reconsider how easy it should be for someone to obtain a divorce when there are young children in the home, the respondents reconsidered and, as a result, gave very different answere. Now only 13 per cent of the men and 17 per cent of the women thought divorce should be easy to get. The majority of men (53 per cent) and a large percentage of the women (44 per cent) thought that divorce for parents of young children should be either difficult or impossible to get. In comparison, when asked about divorace for couples without children, only 19 per cent thought that divorce should be obtained with difficulty. For such couples, the most common sentiment was that divorce should be very or fairly easy to get: 48 per cent of the men and 43 per cent of the women thought this. Thus, whether divorce laws should be made tougher or not seems to be based on whether children are involved.

The current view on divorce is clearly one of acceptance. The majority believe that people should be able to get out of an unhappy marriage. Further, having parents divorce rather than having to live with unhappily married parents is considered the better alternative for the children. Divorce is viewed as easy to get, and whether this is deemed satisfactory depends on whether young children are involved. As with marriage, differences by gender are again frequent, but in this instance, there is no clear pattern. In some instances, women are more likely to oppose divorce while in others the men do so.

My Mum Works, Doesn't Yours?

The influx of women, especially of married women with young children, into the labour force over recent years is a well known phenomenon. What do Australians think about this - - are they in favour of the changes and are men and women in agreement?

Commonly in the past, the argument was that the family, and especially young children, 'suffer' if the mother leaves the home to go out and earn money. A number of questions in the survey looked at this issue (Table 1). It seems that some still make the same argument today; others disagree.

The majority of people thought that employed mothers could have as warm and close relationships with children as non-employed mothers could. About half said that a pre- schooler is likely to suffer because of mother's employment. Again, about half thought that family life suffers when the mother works full-time. Is it more difficult to raise children successfully if both parents work? Most said it was. For each of the questionsin Table 1, men were more likely than women to view a mother's employment as having a negative effect on the family, and especially on children.

These results spell out a number of things with regard to current views of the effect of women's employment on the family. Most Australians agree that it is better for young children if the mother can be at home, and they consider it more difficult to raise children when both are working full- time hours. Yet most Australians also agree that working mothers can have warm and loving relationships with their children. Also considerable numbers think a child or the family does not suffer because of the mother's employment.

When examining what people thought about the effects of women's employment on the family, in every instance there was a difference by gender: men are still more pessimistic than women about the effects on the family of women's employment. This concurs with the thought that women are less traditional than men in areas that touch upon women's equality and autonomy (Glezer 1984).

Do women really want to be employed and should they be employed? Table 2 presents the current view. Considerably less than half believed that what women really want is home and children. But is being a housewife just as fulfilling as employment? The most common response was that it is. Interestingly, women were more likely than men to think this. However, men were not more likely to disagree. Instead, they were more likely than the women to be undecided on the issue; simply, many men did not know if homemaking is as fulfilling as employment.

A few questions looked at how gender roles are now perceived. Most respondents did not think that it is the husband's duty to be the breadwinner and the wife's to be the homemaker, but women were stronger in their feelings towards this than men were. Nearly one-third of the men and women thought that a woman should spend most of her time in care of the family; almost half disagreed. On the other hand, just over half disagreed that a married woman should regard her career as very important.

Views on women's employment were assessed in a different way by asking respondents whether they thought a woman with pre-school-aged children should be employed full-time, part-time, or not at all. Very few (6 per cent) did not have an opinion. The majority said: homemaker; 66 per cent of the men and 62 per cent of the women made this choice. Less than 4 per cent thought the new mother should be working full-time hours; about a quarter thought part-time was the best option, with more women choosing this than men.

Many still seem to think that there should be a clear division of roles in the family - - men should be bringing home the money and women should be home raising the children. Yet, there is a clear sign that many do accept women's and even mothers' employment. Many think that married women have the right to take time away from the family to be concerned with their own careers. In all but one of the questions listed in Table 2 there is a significant difference, the one exception being the question about careers for married women. As before, we see the gender split tending in the same direction - - when it comes to issues on women's greater equality in and out of the home, the women are more supportive of greater equality.

To Be or Not To Be a Parent?

The large families common in the baby boom years are not common today, while discussion on the increase in childless and lone-child families is now common. Yet the values of Australians suggest that very small families are not the ideal. When asked what the ideal number of children for a family to have is, less than 2 per cent chose either no children or one child. Thus, although some contemporary couples are choosing this family size for themselves, it is not seen as the preferred size for the general family. The most common answer was two children (44 per cent); the next most popular (28 per cent) was three; and third was a family size of four (17 per cent). Unlike most of the results for other family values, when it comes to ideal family size, males and females agree.

What appeal do children have in today's society? The data suggest three things. First, children generally are not viewed as a 'burden'. Only 9 per cent thought that having children interfered too much with one's freedom. Still fewer (4 per cent) agreed that they were more trouble than they were worth. The high cost of children in contemporary society is recognised widely, but only 3 per cent of the respondents thought it was better not to have children because they are such a heavy financial burden. On all of these items, only 10 - 15 per cent of the respondents could not decide. Clearly, then, the majority do not begrudge the resources in time, energy, and income that children take.

Second, both men and women think of children as an added bonus or an enriching factor of life. Over 80 per cent thought that children enrich life; only 2 per cent disagreed. Almost two-thirds of the men and 56 per cent of the women agreed that those who never have children miss an important part of life. Only 16 per cent of the men and 22 per cent of the women disagreed. Further, almost one-third of men and a quarter of women believed that people who never have children lead empty lives. Over a quarter of both sexes could not decide whether that was true.

Third, children are still considered to be a form of investment for some parents. However, the nature of the investment seems to have changed from one of economics, as in the past, to one based more on companionship. One- third of the women and 37 per cent of the men agreed that they would be lonely when they were old if they did not have children. In addition, many (36 per cent of the women and 43 per cent of the men) felt that children provide help and security when parents are old. Almost one-third of the respondents neither agreed nor disagreed to these two items, so a considerable amount of indecisiveness is evident.

The costs of raising children today seem to be outweighed by the benefits of having them. Clearly, Australians do not idealise small families - - almost without exception, the ideal number is considered to be two, three, or four children. Children are valued for personal fulfilment, an enriched life, and companionship when older. In nearly all instances, men are somewhat more likely than women to see the positive values of children.


Who then is the most important person in the world? The findings presented in this article suggest that it is not the individual but the family.

Pro-family ideals are clearly evident whether the topic is marriage, divorce, women's employment, or raising children. Marriage is held in high regard, over and above alternatives such as living alone and cohabiting permanently. Further, the acceptance of temporary cohabitation is not at the price of rejecting marriage. Divorce is not taken lightly, especially if children are involved. Many still think that the family is disadvantaged by a mother who is employed. Children are prized, despite the costs they pose, for their companionship and enrichment of life.

As in the past, significant gender differences still exist. Men are the ones who see marriage as providing greater happiness and are more likely to think an unhappy marriage should remain intact for the sake of the children. They are more likely to think that the family suffers from the mother's employment and more likely to think that what women really want is to stay home. Men are also more likely to think that those who do not have children miss out on an essential part of life.

The picture painted by these results suggests a considerable degree of conservatism and traditionalism among contemporary Australians. Does this mean that our society is really not in the 'age of individualism', that the family is alive and strong in Australia, and that we can all sit back and feel good about our altruistic selves? Not necessarily so.

In addition to signs of traditionalism, there are signs of changed values. There is fairly widespread acceptance of cohabitation for young people. Most think it should be easy for the couple to get a divorce as long as no children are involved. Many accept the employment of women in the labour force and believe that they have a right to be concerned with their career progression, despite family ties.

Moreover, there is an undercurrent of self-satisfaction when it comes to contemporary family values. Marriage is valued for the companionship it brings the individual. Divorce is currently viewed as easy to get and many people like it that way. One reason most value children is for the fulfilment and enrichment children bring to their own lives. Children are also often seen as security against loneliness in old age. As Edgar (1986) notes, people have come to expect marriage and children to satisfy individual, not institutional, needs.

In conclusion, the family and its various components are strong and vital; they are highly valued by most Australians. However, the strength and vitality of the family today is of a different nature than in the past. Its image has changed to one that is more accepting of actions that were in earlier times denounced, and to one that has been touched by the age of individualism. Thus, as the advertisement implies, the most important person in the world may be the individual after all. But if it is, it is within the bounds of the revised image of the family.


  • Edgar, D. (1986), Marriage, the Family and Family Law in Australia, Discussion Paper No.13, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Glezer, H. (1984), 'Antecedents and correlates of marriage and family attitudes in young Australian men and women', in 20th International CFR Seminar, Social Change and Family Policies, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne, pp.81 - 147.
  • McDonald, P. (1983), Can the Family Survive?, Discussion Paper No.11, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Rindfuss, R. R. and VandenHeuvel, A. 1990, 'Cohabitation: a precursor to marriage or an alternative to being single?', Population and Development Review, Vol.16, No.4, pp.703- 726.