June 29th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Sexual misconduct in the Church

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Coalition MPs revolt against the ICC

New policies needed to rescue agriculture

COMMENT: How Ruddock could face charges before the ICC

Straws in the Wind: From the other side of the street / Dying culture

Sectarianism rears its ugly head in Victorian ALP

Census figures show decline of the family unit

Media ambush (letter)

Ancient wisdom (letter)

Reality cinema (letter)

Where the facts lie (letter)

Asylum seekers I (letter)

Asylum seekers II (letter)

Children as commodities (letter)

Who will stand up for small business, rural Australia?

OPINION: Reflections on the British monarchy

International terrorism: keeping the issues in focus

Despite tensions: Indonesia looks ahead

BOOKS: 'Undue Noise: Words and Music' by Andrew Ford

BOOKS: 'The Broken Hearth' by William Bennett

BOOKS: 'Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress' by Dai Sijie

COMMENT: That other Holocaust

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Census figures show decline of the family unit

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, June 29, 2002
The release of data from the 2001 Census shows that the family, as the key social unit in society, is in trouble in contemporary Australia.

One of the factors identified by the Bureau of Statistics is "a steady increase in the proportion of divorced people in the population since the 1971 Census". In 2001, 7.4% (1,107, 005 people) of people aged 15 years and over were divorced, compared to less than 2% (133,170 people) in 1971.

Some of the consequences of this emerge from the recently released study on working mothers by the Institute of Family Studies.

The Census data, released on June 17, showed that last August, there were almost 19 million people in Australia, an increase of over a million since the 1996 Census.

Long-term trend

While changes over the past five years have been relatively small, the longer-term trends, seen in comparing Australia today with that of 30 years ago, gives a much clearer picture of the breakdown of the family unit.

This is apparent in the large increase in the number of one-parent families, which have risen from 5.7% (178,417 families) in 1971 to 15.4% (762,632 families) of all families in 2001 - in percentage terms, a 300% increase.

Another important figure from the latest Census is the number of people in their 20s who have never married. In 2001, 75.6% of 20-29 year olds had never been married, a significant increase since 1971 when only 35.7% had never been married.

Related to the increase in family breakdown is the decline in Australia's fertility. The proportion of children aged 0-14 years decreased from 21.5% of the population in 1996 to 20.7% in 2001.

The average household size in 1971 was 3.3 people, but fell to 2.6 people in 2001. This decrease is related to the increase in the number of people living alone, and the declining fertility rate, in which delayed marriage is identified as a factor.

In 2001, 47.0% of all families were couples with children, down from 49.6% from five years earlier.

There were corresponding increases in the proportion of couples without children (35.7%), up from 34.1% in 1996, and lone parent families (15.4%), up from 14.5% in 1996.

The fall in average family size has also been accompanied by an ageing of the population, where the average (median) age in Australia was 35 years in 2001 compared to 34 years in 1996. The proportion of people aged 65 years and over increased from 12.1% in 1996 to to 12.6% in 2001.

Family breakdown has also impacted itself on the employability of women. The Australian Institute of Family Studies recently compared the position of single mothers to those in married or de facto relationships. (AIFS Research Paper No.26, May 2002)

Mothers who were outside the workforce, caring for children, were excluded from the study. Nonetheless, the study found that lone mothers have substantially lower rates of employment (44.5%) than couple mothers (58.5%).

This means that lone mothers find it a lot more difficult to find work, even though they are the primary carer of their children.

Further, "when her youngest dependent child is aged less than four years of age the employment rate of lone mothers is 27.1%, compared to 45.8% for couple mothers", reflecting the greater support received in the family environment.

As these single mothers are seeking work, it suggests that their financial position is grim.

Another interesting - though expected - finding of the AIFS study is that having young children is a powerful disincentive to obtaining work, probably due to the high level of care such children need.

For example, it found that "couple mothers who have a youngest child aged 5-11 years have a 14.2% higher probability of employment than otherwise similar mothers with a youngest child aged 0-4 years."

It should be an object of public policy that mothers of young children do not have to enter the workforce.

If Australia wants to reduce the financial pressures which propel mothers into the workforce, governments should consider a Homemaker's Allowance payable to all women who care for young children in the home.

This would reduce the pressure on mothers to re-enter the workforce while their children are still young, and also indicate the value which the community places of motherhood and the care of children.

It is strange that Governments provide money for child care centres - which are used primarily by mothers who are in employment - yet give no corresponding support to full-time homemakers.

A Homemaker's Allowance would undoubtedly be an additional cost on Government, but could be funded, in part, from existing government payments from the Department of Family and Community Services for child care ($1 billion) and the Family Tax Benefit ($10 billion).

  • Peter Westmore

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