Institute conducts Defence Force Census


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Family Matters article

December 1991


In March 1991 a census was undertaken of the 69,275 full time active duty members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Because little was known about the families of serving members, the bulk of the questionnaire was designed to elicit information on family composition and service related family problems. This article presents an overview of some of the findings of the census relating to family composition; characteristics of serving members; partners and partnerships; children at home; and work and family issues.

On 12 March 1991, all 69,275 full-time active-duty members of the Royal Australian Navy, Army and Air Force were invited to participate in the first census ever taken of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). Much, of course, was already known of Service-related details of individual serving members. However, little was known of their families.

For this reason and reflecting the increasing awareness of the significance of workfamily relationships, the bulk of the census questionnaire was designed to elicit information on family composition and service-related family problems.

Recognising that the interrelationship of work and family obligations is a matter for continuing consideration, the Defence Force intends to conduct further such censuses; it is also likely that specific-purpose research projects will flow from these censuses, building on the data obtained from them.

Following consideration of open tenders in 1990, the Australian Institute of Family Studies was asked to provide its family research expertise in support of the census. In consultation with a Steering Committee, the Institute designed the census questionnaire, prepared and cleaned the data provided by 58,627 census participants, constructed a machine-readable database for further Defence Force research, and provided several reports of initial census findings.

One of these reports, The Australian Defence Force 1991 Families Census Public Report, was launched on 4 September at Parliament House in Canberra by the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, the Hon. Gordon Bilney. It was designed primarily to provide feedback to census participants, and also to inform the wider Australian community which has an interest in the experiences of its Defence Force personnel. The overview presented here is taken from that report.

Family Composition

Over half (53 per cent) of the Defence Force's 69,275 serving members on 12 March 1991 were either married and living with their spouses or were in de facto relationships recognised for the purposes of Defence Force allowances and entitlements. A further 3 per cent were in de facto relationships not recognised by the ADF. Slightly more than 13 per cent of serving members' partners were also in the Defence Force. Fifty-five thousand children of serving members and/or their partners were living at home. A further 3000 children and other relatives were living with ADF members.

Altogether, on 12 March 1991 there were more than 160,000 members of the Australian Defence Force 'family'.


Serving Members

On census day, 23 per cent of Defence Force members were serving with the Navy (15,846); 45 per cent with the Army (31,250); and 32 per cent with the Air Force (22,179).

Slightly less than one in five were commissioned officers, over two-thirds were Petty Officers/Sergeants or more junior enlisted personnel, while just over one-tenth served in the three senior non-commissioned grades.

Approximately one serving member in eight is female.

Just under half of all ADF members are between the ages of 20 and 29 years.

Female members are younger than their male counterparts (58 per cent aged 24 or less, compared with 36 per cent of males) and are, accordingly, more junior in rank.

One-third of all serving members have completed some form of post-secondary education. A further 8 per cent are studying for a post-secondary qualification, the overwhelming majority (81 per cent) with Defence Force assistance.

Usual accommodation is fairly evenly split between those living in barracks or mess (30 per cent), those living in married quarters (32 per cent) and those living elsewhere (38 per cent). Short-term Service-related mobility is highlighted by the fact that on census day 39 per cent stayed in the field or on ship or in barracks or mess, while only 27 per cent were in married quarters.

Longer-term Service-related mobility may be seen in the fact that while only 42 per cent of service members have served ten years or more, fully a quarter have had between six and ten postings of four or more weeks' duration and one-fifth have had eleven or more. Similarly, a quarter have moved house between three and five times in the Service, while one in six have had six or more moves.

Reflecting the fact that almost one-third of serving members live in barracks or mess, typical travelling times between home and work are reasonably short. One-third report that they either live at their place of work or that commuting time is five minutes or less. Slightly more than a third report that it takes between six and twenty minutes to travel between home and work. The balance, taking more than twenty minutes, comprise less than a third of Defence Force members.

Partners and Partnerships

One-tenth of those who are married and living with their spouses have partners who also serve in the Defence Force, as do slightly less than a third of those in de facto relationships.

More than half (54 per cent) of all members' partners are in paid employment, with 4 per cent holding down more than one job (5 per cent of serving members also have paid part-time jobs). Of those not working, one in four sought work in the month preceding census day, with 12 per cent seeking full-time and 12 per cent seeking part-time employment.

When asked why their partners were not working, only 7 per cent said this was because there was no need, compared with 22 per cent reporting that no jobs were available. One in eight said their partners did not work because employers wanted people who would be in the area for a longer time, and 5 per cent said the reason was that they would not be in the area long enough to make working worthwhile.

Family needs of those with children were prominent reasons for Service partners not to be working: in response to multiple-response items, 42 per cent reported the 'need to stay at home to meet the needs of the family'; 21 per cent reported that 'it's too much to look after the children and work'; 24 per cent said they needed 'to be home when their children are out of school'; 20 per cent cited child care difficulties; and 3 per cent reported that their partners did not work because of their children's health.

Only 13 per cent of married personnel have yet to experience at least one Service-related household removal since being married. One in five have moved six or more times.

One in eight married ADF members were separated because of work-related reasons on census day.

More than 40 per cent of married personnel have been separated for Service reasons for periods of one month or longer since being married. Over one-tenth have been separated for a total time in excess of three years since being married, 10 per cent have been separated for a total of two to three years, and a further 21 per cent have been separated for between one and two years. Altogether, only 58 per cent of married Service personnel had been separated from their spouses for a total period less than one year as a result of their Service-related obligations. In fact, one in eight had been separated for service reasons for at least six months in the year leading up to census day.

Children at Home

A total of 26,809 Defence Force families include a total of 55,918 children, 95 per cent of whom are financially dependent on the serving member and, where appropriate, the serving member's spouse or partner.

Four in ten children in Service families are less than six years old. One in seven are 15 years of age or older.

Slightly more than two-thirds of the children in Defence Force families attend school. Of those, most attend either pre-school (12 per cent) or infant/primary school (57 per cent). Slightly more than a quarter (26 per cent) are in secondary education.

Reflecting the respondent's Service-related mobility, 11 per cent of ADF children who have ever attended primary school (including those still at primary school) have attended five or more. Similarly, of those who have ever attended secondary school, one in five has attended three or more.

As with other parents throughout Australia, Defence Force parents make a wide range of child care arrangements for their children. The 1991 Families Census asked participants which of a series of child care arrangements were used regularly for each child, both during school terms (at any time for children not at school) and during school vacations for children at school. Service members reported that child care was required for 27,815 children (51 per cent of all children) and that vacation care was required for 16,744 (41 per cent) of all children attending school. For those children requiring it, the use of child care arrangements is shown in the accompanying Table. 

School Vacations
Another relative25.834.3
A friend37.230.9
Family day care8.35.3
Paid babysitter33.425.5
Work based child care0.60.4
Long day care centre4.95.5
Occasional care centre7.62.8
Private creche1.70.6
Before school care5.0N/A
After school care9.8N/A
Organised vacation programN/A16.8

Child care for a quarter of the children requiring it is free. For a further quarter it costs their parents up to $20 per week per child, while for a fifth it costs between $20 and $40 per week. At the extreme, child care for 7 per cent of Defence Force children requiring it costs their parents $100 or more per week.

Work and Family

Examined under a sufficiently powerful microscope, every occupational grouping could claim uniqueness for itself. However, it does not require much magnification to see the distinctiveness of service in the Defence Force. While other occupational groupings (and the Police Forces spring most quickly to mind) share one or more of the following characteristics, it is arguable that even then, differences of degree constitute differences of kind.

It is inherent in the job description of active service duty that serving members may be subject to hostile, life- jeopardising circumstances and may be called upon to engage in hostile activity. (It is salient to note here that the census, conducted during the recent Gulf War, included ADF members serving in that war.)

  • Service-related transfers (and household removals) are frequent and, typically, of two-to-three years' duration.
  • Defence Force membership entails significant periods of temporary duty away from home as well as more than usual disruptions to 'ordinary' working hours.

Without minimising the obvious potential difficulties arising out of serving in such a potentially hazardous occupation, focus on the second and third of these aspects of ADF membership points to matters requiring consideration in workfamily terms.

This overview highlights several of these: the effects on family cohesion of extended separations of (sometimes) considerable duration; the dislocational effects of mobility on the possibilities of spousal employment; and the educational dislocation of members' children. In addition, the relative inability of serving members to guarantee the regularity of working hours (even when not away from home) reduces the opportunity for them to assume child care responsibilities while their partner works during the member's off-duty hours. In the end, the particular nexus between mobility, spousal employment, child care and educational disruption cannot be examined properly in the context of a census. Proper examination of Defence Force workfamily trade-offs would require (as, indeed, it would for any occupational grouping) fairly extensive special- purpose research.

Given the size of the Defence Force workforce, together with the reasonable assumption that it concentrates workfamily difficulties more intensely than most other occupational groups, the Defence Force must be commended for initiating the 1991 Families Census, for its intention to conduct more such studies, and for its anticipation of specific-purpose research projects to be carried out over time.

Copies of the Report are available for consultation in the Institute's Family Information Centre. Dissemination of the Australian Defence Force 1991 Families Census Public Report is the responsibility of the Australian Defence Force. For further information contact the Defence Force Personnel Policy Branch, HQ ADF, Russell Offices, Canberra.