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The changing face of Aussie families

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Single parent families are on the rise and the fertility rate is dropping further.

Over recent decades many popular television families have reflected ‘typical’ family life. Today, these families would find themselves in the minority, particularly in Australia.

Ranging from cartoon life in The Simpsons, to the Dunphys in Modern Family, the Keatons from Family Ties, the Taylors on Home Improvement, the Barones in Everybody Loves Raymond, the Bundys in Married with Children or even the Roses in Schitt’s Creek – many of us grew up on a persistent theme of the nuclear family.

Australian families have undergone profound changes over the last five decades, along with significant demographic and social changes
Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) Senior Research Fellow, Lixia Qu

“These changes have had a significant impact on family life and individual wellbeing.”

One of the biggest society changes Australia has faced in the last fifty years is not only doubling its population size (from 12.7 million in 1971 to 25.4 million in 2021) but the increase in Australians born overseas (from 20 per cent in 1971 to 28 per cent in 2021).

In addition, the 2021 Census found that almost half of all Australians have a parent born overseas adding to our society’s multiculturalism.


The “typical” family

A significant change to family composition over the past 50 years is the increase in single parent families.

“In 1981, 15.5 per cent of families with dependent children were one parent families, but in 2021 that has risen to 21.8 per cent,” says Qu.

For the first time, the 2021 Census recorded more than a million one parent families, including those with no children under the age of 15, where four out of every five of those single parents were mothers.

Another big change is that women are having fewer children with 2020 recording the lowest total fertility rate, of 1.58.

“Two children have become the most common family size while ‘only’ children or no children have been on the rise,” she adds.

Women are also opting to have their first child later. In 1991, 23 per cent of women gave birth for the first time over the age of 30, while in 2019, that figure is doubled to 51 per cent.

Finally, couples aren't as keen to get married compared to previous generations.

In 1970, there were 116,066 marriages, while in 2019 there were 113,815 despite the increase in our population.

However, in 2020, there were only 78,989 marriages registered. The pandemic and restrictions on weddings could be the reason for the sharp decline.

In 2020, 3.7 per cent of all registered marriages were by same-sex couples with female same-sex marriages accounting for 61.4 per cent while male same-sex marriages accounted for 38.5 per cent.  

“While the marriage rate has fallen, cohabitation has become more common, especially among young people,” says Qu.

“Divorce rates have been trending down over the last decade, however, divorce statistics don’t capture the breakups of cohabiting relationships.

“With the rise in cohabitation, divorce statistics are no longer a good proxy for gauging overall relationship stability.”


Mothers in the workforce

Over the past few decades, there has been a surge of mothers in the workforce.

In 1966, women made up around 30 per cent of the workforce, while in 2020, they made up almost half.

The one common factor among all generations is that women’s participation in the workforce is at its lowest during the generation’s respective childbearing years. And that age has steadily increased over the decades to reflect women’s choice to start families later in life, from 30 years old in 1966 to 35 years old in 2000.

In 2021, more than two-thirds of couple families with dependants had both parents employed, while in one parent families with dependants, 61 per cent of single mothers were employed compared to 75.8 per cent of single fathers.

With both parents likely to work, the challenge families face is who is taking on the responsibility of child care?

“With the increasing labour force participation of mothers, the use of formal child care has risen across all age groups while there has been a decline in the use of informal care,” explains Qu.

The 2021 Census data showed a dramatic decrease in grandparents caring for their grandchildren, another potential side effect of the pandemic and one to watch if it continues now that families have engaged with formal early learning and  care.

Qu adds that one of the biggest concerns all families face is juggling work and family responsibilities, which includes finding affordable, accessible and high quality child care.

“Our research highlights the use of formal child care was higher for employed single-parent families than couple-parent families with both parents employed,” Qu says.

“Single-parent families and couple families with children faced different child care difficulties.

“Employed single parents experienced greater difficulty in finding care for circumstances, such as illness or school holidays.

“On the other hand, couple families with both parents employed were more likely to report having difficulties finding a child care place.”

Another very current challenge for families is the rise in cost of living and access to affordable housing due to high inflation and worsened housing affordability.

As for how we are keeping up with the ever-changing family and its needs, Qu explains that support systems typically lag demands or needs.

“Social, demographic and economic conditions change and thereby lead to new challenges, new demands and new needs,” she says.

“It is important for policy makers, informed and supported by research, to recognise emerging issues.”


Children’s books that celebrate diverse families:


Love Makes a Family by Sophie Beer

Two Homes by Claire Masurel

The World Needs More Purple People by Kristen Bell and Benjamin Hart

All About Families by Felicity Brooks

My Skin, Your Skin by Laura Henry-Allain 

Pink Is for Boys by Robb Pearlman

Flamingo Celeste is Not like the Rest by Celeste Barber

The Family Book by Todd Parr