Census 2016: location and education affects how many children you have

5 08 2016
A young boy riding a bicycle is assisted by his dad in a park in Sydney
 ‘Across Australia those who live in major cities have a substantially lower rate of children ever born than women who live outside major cities.’ Photograph: Paul Miller/AAP

Families are the heart of our community and society. They provide the foundation for socialising future citizens and workforce, and provide care for our elderly. Over the past 25 years there has been dramatic change in the makeup of Australian families due to changes in society’s acceptance of divorce, cohabitation and childlessness, and the changing roles of women in modern societies. The 2016 Australian Census of Population and Housing provides an ideal opportunity to examine the current state of the Australian family.

The census counted 6.1 million families in Australia in 2016. The most common family composition was a couple with children (45%), followed by couples without children (38%) and single parent families (16%). While there has been little change in composition of Australian families since the last census, there has been a considerable change in the last 25 years. In 1991, more than half of families were couple families with children (54%), 32% were couple families without children and 13% were single parent families. In 2016, more than four out of five single parents were females.

Hidden in the family composition statistics is information on relationship type. Couples in these data could be in either registered marriages, or de facto cohabitations. One of the major changes that has been witnessed over recent years has been the increase in cohabitation without marriage. In 2001, an estimated 15% of relationships were cohabiting. By 2016 this has increased to 18%. What is also hidden is the proportion of people who are in an intimate relationship with a person with whom they do not live. What we know from other research is that about 25% of the reported “single” population are actually in intimate relationship.

Children are central to families, yet women are increasingly having no children, and those who do, have fewer. Our current fertility rates are lower than those needed to replace the population. The current average number of children ever born is now 1.96 for women aged 40-44. This is below two, and well below the “one for mum, one dad, and one for the country” suggested by then treasurer Peter Costello in 2006.

One of the reasons for the decline in children ever born is that women delay having children compared to in the past, and because of the later start to childbearing, they end up having fewer children overall. For example, the proportion of women having one or two is now greater than those having three or more. The most common number of children is two, and will likely remain at two because families desire one child of each sex, and there is a desire for children to have a sibling.

Alongside this decline in the number of children each woman will have, there has been an increase in the number of women who remain childless. From the 2016 census, there has been a slight increase in childlessness, with 17% childless in the age group 40-44; women who are near the end of their reproductive years.

Having children is not distributed evenly across the population. Generally, women with higher levels of education have fewer children than those with lower levels of education. This is particularly noticeable for those with a post-graduate education. Around 30% of women with a post-graduate education are childless, compared with 19% of women with a bachelor’s degree, and 17% of women who have completed year 12. This translates to completed fertility of 1.55 children ever born for those with a post-graduate degree, 1.79 for women with a bachelor’s degree, and 1.96 for women who have completed year 12.

Where you live also matters. Across Australia those who live in major cities have a substantially lower rate of children ever born than women who live outside major cities. The more remote the area, the higher the fertility. Women in very remote areas are having almost one additional child than women in major cities.

More recent censuses have asked questions about same-sex relationships. In 2016 there were 46,800 couples reporting a same-sex relationship, an increase of 39%, up from 33,700 in 2011. Children also feature in same-sex families: one quarter of female same-sex couples, and 4.5% of male same-sex couples had children.

On the whole, the census confirms trends in family formation and change that have been ongoing in Australia since the 1980s. One strength of the census is that it continues to change in response to changing social norms. We now measure cohabitation outside of marriage and same-sex marriage and non-binary gender. These are all areas where we will continue to see change in future censuses.

Associate Professor Ann Evans is Associate Dean Research in the College of Arts and Social Sciences, The Australian National University. Associate Professor Edith Gray is the Head of the School of Demography, The Australian National University