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The Changing Face of the Modern Australian Family

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The Changing Face of the Modern Australian Family

How our family structure is evolving – and what it means for the future

Sometimes it’s hard to grasp just how quickly things are changing in our world. It wasn’t that long ago that we lived quite happily without mobile phones, Facebook, email, tablets, eBook readers and voices emanating from our dashboard to help us with on-road navigation. But it’s not just technology that’s changing rapidly – the basic structure of Australian families is undergoing a substantial shift away from the traditional model of Mum, Dad, a couple of kids, a 4-bedroom house and the family pet.

The traditional family unit of yesteryear still remains, but today there is much more diversity.

The traditional family unit of yesteryear still remains, but today there is much more diversity. Family structures that might have been considered unusual 30-50 years ago are now more common; in the 21st century we’re less constrained by the parameters of tradition.

Today, de facto couples, same-sex couples, step-families, single-parent households and blended families don’t raise much of an eyebrow.

The expectation to marry young and start rearing children immediately has also been diluted. In this century, couples are having children later – and greater numbers are choosing not to have children at all.

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Our perceptions of what a typical Aussie family looks like are also being altered by the changing role of women in society. With more and more women in the workforce and an increasing number of female breadwinners in Australian households, that old black-and-white mental image of Dad going to the office and Mum filling the housewife role is no longer applicable in many homes.

The modern family structure in Australia is affected by a range of interconnecting factors: financial stresses, changes in the work environment, declining birth rates, the boosted role of women in the workplace and much more. But while society, the state of the world and our modern choices continue to reshape what we view as ‘family’, the ideals of love, care and a shared vision for the future remain as crucial ingredients.

Here’s a snapshot of what the Aussie family looks like today, based on Australian Bureau of Statistics figures and the NATSEM Modern Family Report (2013).

Marriage, anyone?

Marriage has formed the backbone of family life for centuries, but the when, how and why of modern marriage is changing fast. In Australia, marriage is no longer a prerequisite for the formation of a family. Our marriage rates are on the decline and cohabitation has become more normal, particularly in the past two decades.

De facto relationships are increasingly common, with many also leading to marriage. Nearly 80 per cent of marriages today involve couples who have lived together for a time before tying the knot. These trends have been accompanied by a stabilisation of divorce rates, increased delays in having kids and a decline in fertility rates.

The once-deep association between religion and marriage is diminishing, coinciding with a general reduction in religious affiliation nationally.

The once-deep association between religion and marriage is diminishing, coinciding with a general reduction in religious affiliation nationally. More than a fifth of today’s Australians report no religious affiliation at all, and affiliation with the Christian religion has dropped from 96 per cent a century ago to 61 per cent today.

This has all led to a boost in civil marriage ceremonies at the expense of religious ones. In 1991, civil celebrants accounted for 37.6 per cent of legal marriages, but by 2011 this had almost doubled to 70.1 per cent.

The average age at which we’re marrying is also undergoing a transformation, partly due to increased cohabitation but also influenced by loftier career aspirations and an increased focus on higher education.

Between 1991 and 2011, the median age for Aussie men rose from 26.7 to 29.7, and for women it jumped from 24.5 years to 28. In the same period, multicultural marriages (spouses born in different countries) increased, while marriages containing partners who had both been married before decreased.

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When the more conservative members of our society hear about this new-fangled increase in couples living together before marriage, they might be tempted to conclude that the divorce rate in this country must be going through the roof as well. But they’d be wrong. The world is not ‘going to hell in a hand-basket’ (well, not as far as our divorce rates go, anyway): in fact, the Aussie divorce rate (per 1000 population) has dropped from 2.6 to 2.2 in the last couple of decades and seems to be stabilising.

So maybe there’s something to this ‘finding out exactly what we’re getting into beforehand’ cohabitation business after all. Interestingly, the past couple of decades have also seen our marriages lasting a bit longer too. Our divorce rates are roughly on par with countries like Germany, Canada, Sweden and the UK, but behind the US (with a 2009 divorce rate of 3.9).

Our new, no-rush approach to parenthood

Today’s Australian women are having babies later in life and less often. Many factors are contributing to this, including an increased focus on careers and education, delays in getting married and general changes in how women view their role in society.

The median age for Australian mothers having their first child was 25.3 years but this rose to 28.9 in just two decades

In 1981, the median age for Australian mothers having their first child was 25.3 years but this rose to 28.9 in just two decades. When looking at total births in 2011, nearly 23 per cent were to women over the age of 35.

Declining birth rates are by no means a new phenomenon; they’ve been happening since the post-war baby boom of the 1950s.

Blended families, step-families and single parents

Those who become single parents through parental separation, divorce or the death of a spouse may opt to form a relationship with a new partner, resulting in a step-family or blended family. Some relationship definitions might make this clearer:

  • Single parent family: A family with children and just one parent in the household
  • Intact family: A family where the couple are the biological or adoptive parents of all the family’s children
  • Step-family: A ‘couple family’ where at least one of the children is the biological or adopted child of only one of the parents (like when a single parent remarries)
  • Blended families: A ‘couple family’ with at least two children, where one child is the natural (adopted or biological) offspring of both parents – and another child is the natural child of just one of the parents (like when a single parent has a child with the new person in their life).

When it comes to families with children, just over 65 per cent were intact families, just over 26 per cent were single parent families

28 per cent of Australian families are made up of two natural (adoptive or biological) parents and two kids.

Following close on their heels are intact families with just one child (23 per cent).

Next up are single parents with one child (15 per cent), intact families with more than three children (13 per cent) followed by single parent families where there is more than one child (11 percent).

When it comes to families with children, just over 65 per cent were intact families, just over 26 per cent were single parent families, three per cent were blended families and five percent were step-families.

Blended and step-families make up almost twice the share of families today than they did in the eighties, but how do they fare economically when compared with intact families? Well, in 2011, 77 per cent of intact families owned their own homes – and the figure for blended and step-families was 60 per cent. Data on wages shows that blended and step-families aren’t that far behind intact families ($1878 a week versus $2073 a week) and are well ahead of single-parent families ($839 per week) in gross wages earned.

Same-sex couples

Same-sex relationships have been included as part of official Australian statistics since the 1996 Census and federally, sexual orientation now features in anti-discrimination laws nationwide. However, statistical information on same-sex families is far from complete in this country and offers only a partial glimpse into the lives of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Australians.

According to the 2011 Australian Census, 33,714 same-sex couples were recorded – 52 percent being male same-sex couples and 48 percent being female same-sex couples. This is a 72 per cent increase on the number of same-sex couples recorded just ten years earlier (in 2001).

When it comes to employment, opposite-sex couples are far less likely to have both partners in the workforce than same-sex couples, but this is due to age differences more than anything else

The Australian Bureau of Statistics also reported that same-sex couples had a younger median age compared to opposite-sex couples – 40 years old as opposed to 48 years.

When it comes to employment, opposite-sex couples are far less likely to have both partners in the workforce than same-sex couples, but this is due to age differences more than anything else: opposite-sex couples are five times as likely to be 65 years or over than same-sex couples.

On average, female same-sex couples have roughly the same number of children (22.2 per cent) as women who aren’t living with a partner. In contrast, less than three per cent of male same-sex couples have children.

Women, work and the modern family

One of the most profound changes to the structure of Australian families is the increased presence of women in the workforce – not just as supplemental earners but as household breadwinners.

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Back in 1983, only 40 per cent of couple households with children had both parents in employment, while today the figure is closer to 60 per cent. The trend toward double-income families is happening not just in Australia but in many other OECD countries around the globe, including the USA, New Zealand and the UK. For some families, two incomes are now a necessity in order to meet financial obligations.

In Australia, we tend to favour dual-earner situations where one partner works full-time while the other just works part-time. And our modern families are starting to see a greater proportion of households where the female partner is earning more than the man.

Female breadwinner households are up from 22.3 per cent in 2001 to 24.2 per cent in 2011, with our most affluent families having a smaller percentage (17 per cent) of female breadwinners than our lowest-income families (27 per cent).

Looking toward the future

While the composition and structure of the typical Australian family is undergoing significant changes, the basic ideals of the family unit (love, commitment and looking after each other) are still the same.

While the composition and structure of the typical Australian family is undergoing significant changes, the basic ideals of the family unit (love, commitment and looking after each other) are still the same. The 21st century family’s challenges aren’t that different from those of previous generations – making ends meet, maintaining a home, keeping everyone safe and healthy, ensuring our children’s education and supporting each other through good times and bad.

As we move into the next decade, we can expect families to look less and less like those black-and-white sitcom families from the 1960s. Families will become more adaptable to all the rapid societal changes that are happening around them. All we can predict for sure is that families will keep evolving to match the times.

Our loved ones are precious and deserve our protection – especially financially. These responsibilities are part of the definition of family. We want to enjoy our family in the present, but we also have to be adequately prepared for the future – whatever it might bring.

Cute baby boy with great grandfather in a home setting.

We need to think about things like insurance and what would happen if we were too sick or injured to work, or how our family might cope if anything jeopardised our ability to protect their financial future. If you are worried about this, read our article called Have You Insured Your Lifestyle, which will provide you with more insight into life insurance policies that can give you peace of mind about providing for your family financially if something were to happen.

As families, whether we’re single parents, double-income families or something looking suspiciously like The Brady Bunch, we all have people that we love and feel the need to look after as best we can. And we need to embrace the growing diversity of the modern Aussie family. It may look different, but it still works great!