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Family Diversity

Together, these trends indicate that Australians at the end of the 1990s had a far greater choice of lifestyles regarding forming relationships, having children, and leaving marriages. This has led to an increase in the diversity of family types. Changes in the labor market and the increase in ethnic diversity in Australia have also expanded the variety of family lifestyles in Australia today—although once FIGURE 2 again, some areas of current diversity (for example, lone-parent families) were apparent more than a century ago despite the limited choice available then. A few examples of the diversity characterizing Australian families are provided below.

Family types. With the increase in relationship breakdown, the proportion of families with dependent children that are headed by one parent has increased progressively (from 15% in 1986 to 21% today). However, sole-parent families were relatively common 100 years ago. For instance, in 1891 in the state of Victoria, this circumstance represented nearly 17 percent of all families with dependent children (McDonald 1995). Nevertheless, sole father families with dependent children are less common today (6% in 2000) than in 1891 (38%), reflecting the high levels of maternal mortality in the nineteenth century (ABS 2000; McDonald 1995).

As more couples dissolve their relationship and acquire new partners, many children are being raised in stepfamilies for varying lengths of time. Around 9 percent of couple families with children under eighteen are stepfamilies (ABS 1998). However, stepparents were even more common 100 years ago than they are today, although the leading cause underlying stepparenting has changed from death of natural parent to divorce (McDonald 1995).

Multicultural families. Increasing cultural diversity in Australia has expanded the range of family lifestyle patterns and religious affiliations. For example, while the vast majority of family households in Australia comprise only one family, disproportionate numbers in some cultural groups, including Southern European, Middle Eastern, and Asian groups as well as indigenous Australians live in extended family households (Millward and de Vaus 1997). Approximately 28 percent of all marriages are intermarriages—mostly involving Australian-born men and women marrying partners born overseas (ABS 1999).

The numbers of Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims increased by the end of the 1990s, although less than 3 percent of the total population identify with these religions (Bouma 1997). Although Christianity continues to predominate, the percentage of the population describing themselves as Christian fell from 96 percent in 1901 to 71 percent in 1996. During the same period, the percentage describing themselves as not religious increased from 0.4 percent to 17 percent.

Work and family. The percentage of married women aged twenty to twenty-four and twenty-five to thirty-four in the labor force increased from 4 to 5 percent in 1933 to 57 and 49 percent, respectively, in 1981. Today, around two-thirds of married women in these age groups are employed outside the home. This dramatic change has led to increased concern about balancing work and family life (Wolcott and Glezer 1995). Although surveys repeatedly show that domestic tasks are shared along gender lines, some evidence suggests that this division of gender roles is weakening (Wolcott 1997).

The marked increase in the labor force participation of women has led to an increase in the number of children being cared for by people other than their parents, in both formal (regulated, paid care) and informal (provided by family or unrelated others, usually unpaid) situations. Today, half of children under age twelve use some type of childcare (ABS 2000c). Since the late 1980s, the proportion of children using formal care has increased progressively, while the proportion of children using informal care has changed little. Of the children using informal care, nearly 60 percent are cared for by grandparents alone or in combination with other forms of care.

Additional topics

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