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Family Trends: A Long-term Perspective

Recent family-related trends that seem alarming today may seem less so if viewed in the context of changes that have occurred over the last 200 years. Key areas of change in family life in Australia include family formation, dissolution, and reformation; family diversity; and gender roles. These trends not only interact with each other but also represent outcomes of, and factors contributing to, other social developments.

Cohabitation. One issue that has led to misgivings about the future of marriage concerns the rising proportion of couples who are living together without having married (here called cohabiting). The proportion of all couples who were cohabiting almost doubled from 5 percent in 1982 to 9 percent in 1997. Although the increase was significant, these figures nevertheless still indicate that the overwhelming majority of couples who live together are married.

However, cohabitation in the early nineteenth century was even more common, with one 1806 report about Sydney suggesting that only 28 percent of adult women were married, and most of the rest were cohabiting. Incumbent governors resolved to restore the regulation of partnerships through marriage—an objective that was substantially achieved by 1860 (Carmichael 1988).

Cohabitation now takes many forms, including unions without commitment, replacements for marriage, and trial marriages. More and more couples are living together before they get married, apparently part of other dramatic changes in social attitudes (McDonald 1995). By the late 1990s around two-thirds of couples who married had already been living together—a situation that applied to less than one-quarter of marrying couples some twenty years earlier (ABS 2000a).

Marriage. Couples are now marrying later because increasing numbers are living together before marriage or advancing their educations. Between 1971 and 1999, the median age at first marriage increased from 21.1 to 26.4 for women and 23.4 to 28.2 years for men (Hugo 2001). In addition, the last few decades have seen a progressive rise in the proportion of men and women who never marry. In the 1950s and 1960s fewer than 10 percent of men and women never married (Mc-Donald, Ruzicka, and Pyne 1987). Today, this applies to around 25 percent of men and women (ABS 2000a).

Although the magnitude of the modern swing from early to late marriages has no historical precedent (McDonald 1995), some of these trends are by no means new. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the proportion of women who married declined, and age at first marriage rose for both men and women (Carmichael 1988; Jackson 1988).

In the 1950s and 1960s early marriage was associated with leaving the parental home to form a new household and establish independence from parents, thus symbolizing the transition to adulthood. However, this tendency to marry early weakened in the 1970s, in line with the increasing emphasis placed on individual growth and freedom (Carmichael 1988; Gilding 1997).

Since the 1970s, dramatic changes have occurred in the education and employment of young people, with increasing numbers completing high school and going on to post-secondary education, and decreasing numbers of early school leavers finding full-time paid work. Few now leave the family home to marry, and more and more young people are living with their parents for support while studying. At the same time, many, particularly Anglo-Australians, also live independently in various arrangements (Hartley and de Vaus 1997; McDonald 1995).

Having children. While out-of-wedlock births were more common during the early period of white settlement than they are today (Carmichael 1995), the rate has risen with the increasing popularity of cohabitation—from about 5 percent of all births in the 1950s and 1960s to around 30 percent by the end of the 1990s. Paternity is now acknowledged on the birth certificates of almost 90 percent of babies born out of wedlock (ABS 2000b), compared to 68 percent in 1980 (ABS 1997).

Most births occur within marriage, but the total fertility rate is falling. While this trend has occurred before, the recent fall in fertility is unprecedented. Fertility fell in the second half of the nineteenth century first in response to the decline in marriage rates, and later though increasing knowledge and acceptance of contraception, a period of massive unemployment (in the 1890s), and gradual implementation of compulsory schooling and abolition of child labor—leading children to become an expense rather than economic asset (Gilding 1991; Caldwell, McDonald, and Ruzicka 1982).

Figure 1 shows the trends in fertility across the twentieth century, where troughs and peaks reflect socioeconomic forces of the time. The Great Depression marked an early low point in fertility, with 2.1 babies per woman born in 1934. The end of World War II sparked the baby boom years, with the fertility rate peaking at 3.5 in 1961. An overall downward trend then reappeared, hitting a low of 1.75 babies per woman in 1999 (ABS 2000).

Specifically, the proportion of women between the ages of forty and forty-four who gave birth to at least four children has decreased (from 26 percent for those born in the late 1930s to 13 percent for those born in the early to mid-1950s), while the proportion of women who never had children increased (from 8 percent to 12 percent for the same generations) (ABS 1999). Furthermore, it is estimated at least one in five women who are currently in their early childbearing years will not have children. This, too, represents a recurring trend. Thirty-one percent of all women born at the turn of the twentieth century had not given birth by the time they were forty-five (Merlo and Rowland 2000).

Contemporary falls in fertility can be explained by multiple interacting factors, including the introduction of the contraceptive pill and the increased availability of legal abortion, improvements in the education levels of young women, and the increasing participation of married women in paid employment. Women also face substantial opportunity costs if they leave work to care for a child (Gray and Chapman 2001), and, conversely, some lose the chance to have children if they delay childbearing and then separate from their partner (Qu, Weston, and Kilmartin 2000). Some evidence also suggests a decline in the perceived importance attached to having children (de Vaus 1997), although most young people apparently intend to marry and have children (McCabe and Cummins 1998).

The combination of falling fertility and increasing longevity is creating an aging of the population FIGURE 1 that carries with it economic and social challenges (e.g., the difficulties of supporting a burgeoning retired population and demands on health care and other needs of the elderly).

Divorce. In the early years of white settlement, divorce was difficult to obtain, expensive, and rare. Divorce legislation was not introduced by individual colonies until between 1858 and 1873, with matrimonial misconduct (which includes adultery, cruelty, or desertion, and acts such as incest, bigamy, or rape) being the key grounds. Over the years, the forms of misconduct accepted as grounds for divorce widened in all states (Carmichael and McDonald 1986).

The divorce rate rose slightly in the 1920s to early 1940s, then peaked in 1947, as some hasty wartime marriages were dissolved (Carmichael and McDonald 1986). A further rise followed the introduction of a uniform law across the states and territories in 1959, which allowed couples to divorce after five years of separation.

However, the most dramatic increase occurred when the Family Law Act (1975) was introduced. "Irretrievable breakdown," as evidenced by one year of separation after filing for divorce, became the only ground for divorce. Prior long-term separations were thus formalized, and some divorces were brought forward, contributing to a peak of almost nineteen divorces per 1,000 married men and women in 1976. More recently, the rate has increased from 10.6 per 1,000 married men and women in 1987 to 12.7 in 1999. Now more than 40 percent of marriages are expected to end in divorce. Figure 2 shows that the number of children under eighteen years old who are involved in divorce has also increased (from 13,000 in 1966 to 53,000 in 1999) (ABS 1994, 2000a).

Although many people remarry after divorce, remarriage rates have declined in all age groups, mostly by more than 50 percent (ABS 1998)—a trend that is likely to reflect a preference for cohabitation. Remarriages tend to be less stable than first marriages, particularly for those who are quite young when they remarry (de Vaus 1997).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsAustralia - Indigenous Australian Families, White Settlement, Family Trends: A Long-term Perspective, Family Diversity