Stay-at-home fathers in Australia

Research Report – April 2018

3 How many stay-at-home fathers are there?

3.1 Overview of trends

As noted in Chapter 2, in this report stay-at-home fathers are considered to be fathers with co-resident dependent children aged under 15 years, who are not doing any paid work, who have a partner or spouse who is doing some paid work.

Applying this definition to Australian Census data, in the census week in 2016:

  • There were approximately 80,000 families with stay-at-home fathers. This represented 4.6% of two-parent families.
  • In comparison, there were 498,900 families with stay-at-home mothers, if this same definition is applied to mothers, or 29% of two-parent families.
  • The balance comprises 60% of families in which both parents did some paid work and 6.8% in which neither did any paid work.

According to the 2011 Census, 4.2% of two-parent families were stay-at-home father families (68,500 families); 31% were stay-at-home mother families; in 57% both parents were working and in 7% neither parent was working. While other data sources may yield different estimates because of variation in survey scope and questions asked, a number of Australian datasets yield very similar estimates to the ones derived from the 2011 census.2  3

The varied definitions of stay-at-home father used across countries and studies make it difficult to compare estimates. However, it appears that estimates of 4–5% are broadly consistent with those produced for other industrialised countries, as discussed in Chapter 2.

While there was an increase between 2011 and 2016, the estimated number of stay-at-home father families has remained low across the census years examined here, from 1981 to 2016.4 The numbers of stay-at-home-fathers were:

  • 29,600 in 1981 (1.9% of two-parent families);
  • 41,900 in 1986 (2.6% of two-parent families);
  • 54,700 in 1991 (3.6% of two-parent families);
  • 60,300 in 1996 (4.0% of two-parent families);
  • 68,200 in 2001 (4.5% of two-parent families);
  • 59,500 in 2006 (3.9% of two-parent families);
  • 68,500 in 2011 (4.2% of two-parent families); and
  • 80,000 in 2016 (4.6% of two-parent families).

That is, there was an increased number and percentage of stay-at-home fathers between each of the census years from 1981 through to 2001. From 2001 to 2011 this increase did not continue, with the number and percentage at 2011 similar to those at 2001, with lower estimates for 2006. In Appendix B, analysis of the ABS labour force survey is presented for 1981–2016, and these data also show that most of the increase in the number and percentage of stay-at-home fathers occurred over the 1980s and 1990s.

To contextualise this trend, changing family employment arrangements from 1981 to 2016 were more apparent in terms of the decline in jobless couple families and stay-at-home mother families. This has been balanced by the increase in the proportion of families in which both parents are in some employment. As seen in Figure 1, the change in the percentage of stay-at-home father families over this time is much smaller than these other changes.

Figure 1: Stay-at-home fathers and other family employment arrangements by year, two-parent families with youngest child aged less than 15 years

Figure 1: Stay‑at‑home fathers and other family employment arrangements by year, two-parent families with youngest child aged less than 15 years

Note: “Stay-at-home” parents are those who are not in work who have a partner/spouse who is in work. “Jobless” families are those in which both parents are not working, including those away from work. “Both working” indicates both parents spent at least one hour in paid work in the reference period. Excludes families in which either parent’s labour force status was not stated. Percentages many not total exactly 100.0% due to rounding.

Source: Australian Population Census customised reports, 1991–2016; 1981 and 1986 one percent confidentialised unit record files

3.2 Stay-at-home fathers’ labour force status

In defining stay-at-home fathers as those who are not employed (who have a spouse who is in paid work), all are counted as stay-at-home regardless of their reason for non-employment, their preference for being employed or not, or the activities they are undertaking while not employed. In this section, we explore this, by using information about fathers’ labour force status and activities, to uncover some of the heterogeneity of the group of fathers identified as “stay-at-home”. This is not done with the intention of refining the definition of stay-at-home father, but of providing more understanding of which fathers are captured using this approach.

Of the 80,000 stay-at-home fathers in 2016, 43,800 were “not in the labour force” (55%), 23,800 (30%) were “unemployed” and 12,500 “away from work” (16%).

  • Fathers who are not in the labour force include those away from work to care for children and look after the home, as well as those away from work due to ill health or disability, or study, and those who are otherwise jobless but not looking for work or not available to start work. Within this group, then, are those fathers who have opted out of paid work to focus on caring for children. These different reasons for being out of employment are not captured in the census, and so we cannot create different groups of stay-at-home fathers, as has been done for the US by Kramer and colleagues (as discussed in Chapter 2). According to analysis of the ABS Persons Not in the Labour Force Survey, about one in three fathers who are not in the labour force has a main activity of home duties or child care (Appendix C).
  • Unemployed fathers are those who do not have a job, are looking for work and are available to start work. Here, the unemployed stay-at-home fathers are those who are unemployed and have a spouse who is employed.5
  • Stay-at-home-fathers who are away from work are fathers who say that they had a job, but were not working in it in the census week. That is, they reported having a job, but then answered that they worked no hours in that job during census week. According to standard labour force definitions, they are employed, but we have included them as not employed in case some have taken long-term leave to care for children. Analyses of mothers’ employment participation by age of youngest child indicates that for mothers the “away from work” category includes those who have taken leave to care for children (Baxter, 2013b). Stay-at-home fathers who are away from work include those who are temporarily away from work for other reasons, such as because of holidays or illness.

The increase in the number of stay at home fathers between 2011 and 2016 reflected increases in the number not in the labour force and the number unemployed, with the number of stay at home fathers who were away from work somewhat less in 2016 than in 2011. (See Figure 2.) Together, these data indicate that the stay-at-home father group defined from these data is a heterogeneous one. While it includes fathers who are not seeking work and are primarily doing home duties or child care, there are many other circumstances represented. This includes those who are away from work because of their own illness or disability, and those who are actively seeking work.

Research from the US has shown that there is an increase in the number of stay-at-home fathers (Kramer & Kramer, 2016) and also in fathers’ involvement in care (Casper & O’Connell, 1998; Knop & Brewster, 2015; O’Connell, 1993) when unemployment rates are higher. We therefore ask whether information about stay-at-home fathers’ labour force status can tell us anything about changes in this group of fathers over recent decades.6 For context, Figure 2 shows the male unemployment rate at June of each year from 1980 to 2016, along with the five-yearly census data on stay-at-home fathers’ labour force status. There does not appear to be an association between the total number of stay-at-home fathers and the male unemployment rate. There are not always more stay-at-home fathers when the unemployment rate is higher.

Figure 2: Male unemployment rates (1980–2016) and labour force status of stay-at-home-fathers with children aged under 15 years (1981–2016)

Figure 2: Male unemployment rates (1980–2016) and labour force status of stay‑at‑home-fathers with children aged under 15 years (1981–2016)

Notes: See Appendix A about some of the changes in labour force questions used in the census.

Source: Australian Population Census customised reports, 1991–2016; 1981 and 1986 one percent confidentialised unit record files. ABS Monthly labour force surveys (June each year, from trend series).

Focusing instead on the stay-at-home fathers who were unemployed, in most census years the number follows a similar trend to that of the unemployment rate. For example, the number of unemployed stay-at-home fathers was low in 2006 when male unemployment rates were relatively low, and the number of unemployed stay-at-home fathers peaked (across these census years) in 1991, around the time of very high male unemployment rates. There does therefore appear to be some link between macro-economic conditions and the number of stay-at-home fathers, insofar as it relates to stay-at-home fathers who are unemployed.

In more recent years, the “not in the labour force” category is the largest within those defined as stay-at-home fathers, having increased across census years. This mirrors a broader trend of increasing numbers of men not in the labour force (Lattimore, 2007). This does not necessarily reflect an increase in the number or proportion of fathers electing out of employment in order to care for children, since there has also been growth in the number of working-age men who are outside of the labour force because of their ill health or disability (see in Appendix C, analysis of changes in the distribution of main activities of men aged 25–54 years who are not in the labour force). For more analysis of trends relating to men not in the labour force refer to Lattimore (2007).

3.3 Mothers’ labour force status and work hours

In reporting on stay-at-home mothers, we do not normally pay much attention to activities and labour force status, as the majority of mothers are not in the labour force, and a majority give their reason for not working as caring for children or looking after the family. However, not-employed mothers of older children are more likely than those of younger children to give reasons for being not employed that indicate their having barriers to employment (Baxter, 2013c).

By our definition, mothers are employed in stay-at-home father families; however, they are not all employed full-time. In 2016, of the 80,000 stay-at-home father families, about half of the mothers were working part-time hours and half were working full-time hours. If we were to impose a more restricted requirement on our definition of stay-at-home fathers that the mother had to be in full-time work and the father not employed, then the estimates of the number of stay-at-home father families, at each year, would be around half of those presented previously. This is evident in Figure 3, which shows mothers’ work hours in stay-at-home father families, for each of the census periods from 1981 to 2011. The growth in part-time work among mothers in stay-at-home father families mirrors the growth in part-time work among mothers more generally over this period (Baxter, 2013d).

Figure 3: Mothers’ work hours in stay-at-home father families, 1981–2016

Figure 3: Mothers’ work hours in stay‑at‑home father families, 1981–2016

Note: Part-time work is up to 34 hours per week.

Source: Australian Population Census customised reports, 1991–2016; 1981 and 1986 one per cent confidentialised unit record files.

More detailed census data reveals that mothers in stay-at-home father families who were employed part-time were often working quite short hours (see Appendix E, Table E.1). In 2011, of employed mothers in stay-at-home father families:

  • 16% worked 1–15 hours per week;
  • 17% worked 16–24 hours per week; and
  • 17% worked 25–34 hours per week.

However, Table E.1 shows that a higher proportion of mothers work full-time hours (49%) in stay-at-home father families compared to dual-working families (37%).

If we put mothers’ work hours together with fathers’ labour force status (Figure 4), in 30% of stay-at-home father families in 2016, the father was not in the labour force while the mother worked full-time hours. This was the largest of the groups when families are cross-classified according to these two variables.

A reason to focus only on families in which mothers work full-time hours would be that some mothers working part-time hours may be working only a few hours of work per week, such that income from this employment is not the household’s primary source of income. That is, when mothers work part-time hours, it may be that the stay-at-home fathers are not primarily reliant on the mothers’ income, but instead they and their household are primarily reliant on allowances or pensions from the government. This is, in fact, the case, as seen in Appendix D, in supplementary analysis of the main source of household income according to family employment arrangements. In Chapter 4 of this report we examine income information for stay-at-home father families and other families, as reported in the census.

Figure 4: Mother’s work hours and father’s labour force status in stay-at-home father families, 2016

Figure 4: Mother’s work hours and father’s labour force status in stay‑at‑home father families, 2016

Source: Australian Population Census customised report, 2016.

Note: Excludes 2% who were not classifiable because employed mothers’ work hours were not stated.

3.4 Summary

The prevalence of stay-at-home father families is small—currently at 4.6% of couple families with children, which is around the level found in comparable countries such as the US and Canada. The incidence of these families has grown when considering the longer-term trends from the early 1980s and is up from 4.2% in 2011. Overall, though, changes in the percentage have been small after the 1980s. While the percentages are small, the number of these families was estimated to be around 80,000 in 2016, rising from 68,500 in 2011. In the rest of the report we aim to provide greater insights on the stay-at-home father families, focusing on the 2011 census data, to examine how they compare to other families with children.

The main point to take from the analysis of parents’ labour force status is that there is considerable diversity within the group identified as stay-at-home father families. The increase from 2011 to 2016 comprised increases in the number of stay-at-home fathers who were unemployed or who were not in the labour force, with no increase in those who were employed but away from work. From these data, it is not possible to hone in on those who have elected to remain home to care for children while the mother takes on the primary breadwinning role. However, it appears that a significant proportion of the 4–5% identified as stay-at-home fathers is not characterised by this description.

2 If we derive estimates from HILDA, using data collected in 2011, the results are virtually the same as these derived from the 2011 Census. Using the same definition and scope, according to HILDA, in 2011, 4% of two-parent families were stay-at-home father families, 33% were stay-at-home mother families, 5% were jobless families and in 58% both parents were undertaking some work.

3 According to the ABS labour force survey in June 2011, of two-parent families with a youngest child aged less than 15 years, 3.3% were stay-at-home father families, 29% stay-at-home mother families, 63% dual-working families and 5% jobless families. The estimated number of stay-at-home father families was 60,000 at this time.

4 The estimates for 1981 and 1986 were derived from the Census one per cent confidentialised unit record files. The estimates for 1991–2016 were derived from custom data reports provided by the ABS. All estimates are based on two-parent families with children aged under 15 years, excluding families in which either parent had not stated labour force status.

5 There have been differences across census years in the collection and derivation of labour force information. See Appendix A.

6 There have been differences across census years in the collection and derivation of labour force information. See Appendix A.