Family traditions in Australia
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.
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households, that old black-and-white mental image of Dad going to the office and Mum filling the housewife role is no longer applicable in many homes.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 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.
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.