Western Sydney University experts weigh-in on the 2016 Census

A range of experts from Western Sydney University have had their say on the 2016 Census.

The national Census data, released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, provides updated insights into what it means to be Australian: including who we are, where we live, what we do, how we work and how we lead our lives.

Australian households and families 

The 2016 Census counted more than six million families in Australia on Census night. Of these families, about 45% were couples with children; 38% were couples without children; and 16% were single parent families.

According to the data, one in four Australians (24%) now live in single person households, and there are more than 47,000 same-sex couples in Australia.

Dr Kate Huppatz from the School of Social Sciences and Psychology says these figures show that our understanding of what constitutes a 'family' needs to catch up to lived experience.

"For some time we have been seeing a growth in diverse family formations. While the nuclear family is still considered to be the norm, one family and couple family households are on the decline and lone person, single-parent, and multiple family households are on the increase, as are same-sex couples and couples without children," says Dr Huppatz.

"Migration, an ageing population, divorce, increased gay and lesbian rights and our tendency to delay marriage and family would all play a part in these trends."

Dr Rae Dufty-Jones from the School of Social Sciences and Psychology reflects on the impact that the changing nature of Australian families will have on housing.

"Since 1991, the proportion of multi-family households has more than doubled, and lone-person households have increased by almost 25%," says Dr Dufty-Jones.

"Despite these trends, the make-up of the Australian housing stock has not shifted dramatically. This is because most housing is historical stock – it was built to suit the traditional nuclear family rather than the more diverse household types we see today."

Dr Dufty-Jones says there is a need for more diverse or flexibly designed housing to accommodate the changing nature of Australian households and there is also a need for housing that is adaptable over time.

"This could include housing that is designed to allow multi-family households to share a house well. For example, that provides spaces that are large enough for households to come together, but also give families privacy," she says.

"Houses with doors that lock to turn a larger house into a few smaller dwellings would allow households to alter their housing to suit their changing needs as people move in and out of the household."

Housing in Australia 

To continue the topic of housing, the Census data reveals that Australia is still a nation of home owners – with 31% of Australian homes owned outright and 34% owned with a mortgage, leaving 31% being rented.

Dr Louise Crabtree from the Institute for Culture and Society says these figures show that a greater proportion of households are carrying mortgage debt and a greater proportion of households are renting.

"These figures are consistent with concerns that home ownership is becoming unaffordable in Australia," says Dr Crabtree.

"The ongoing growth of lone person households and corresponding reduction in household size is also worth noting – as this indicates that the types of housing that might be appropriate or desirable in Australia is changing."

Dr Emma Power from the School of Social Sciences and Psychology says the data confirms a long-standing national decline in the proportion of Australians who own or are purchasing their own home.

"In conjunction with declining home ownership we are also seeing an increasing proportion of renter households in Australia," says Dr Power.

"Australian renters are paying higher rents – median household rent has increased at a greater rate than median personal income. This has greatest impact on single person households and single-parent and couple households where there is only one income.

"The median single income household would need to spend more than 50% of their household income to pay the median rent. This is unaffordable by any measure and is indicative of the housing stress facing Australian renters."

Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

In the 2016 Census, 649,171 people identified as being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent – a figure that has increased by 18% in the past five years.

Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver, the University's Pro Vice-Chancellor Engagement and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership, says – despite this increase – there remains to be a large undercount of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people identified in the Census.

"This is a concern that that ABS will need to address," says Professor Jackson Pulver.

"One way to do this is to work more closely with communities and understand better what communities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want from the Census. These are hard conversations to have, but ones that are needed so that the statistical agency and its many partners can serve better the needs of vulnerable Australians."

Australia's increasing cultural diversity

The Census also confirms that Australia is a hugely diverse nation.

People born overseas, or who had at least one parent born overseas, made up almost half (49%) of the entire population in 2016. Australians were born in close to 200 different countries and speak more than 300 languages in our homes.

Dr Shanthi Robertson from the Institute for Culture and Society says many of the insights into Australia's migration and cultural diversity were not surprising.

"Migrants today are increasingly young and educated, tend to settle in urban areas and, although the UK and New Zealand remain key source countries, today's migrants are more likely than in the past to hail from Asian countries, particularly India and China," says Dr Robertson.

However, Dr Robertson says the data only hints at Australia's increasing cultural complexity.

"With source countries for new migrants diversifying and numbers of second generation and third generation Australian increasing, cultural diversity in Australia is increasingly transformed by generational change, high levels of intermarriage, cultural adaptation, multilingualism, 'hybrid' identities and the increasing transnational mobility for work, study and visits of both the overseas-born and the Australian-born," says Dr Robertson.

"Ethno-cultural boundaries and group identities that may have seemed clear in the early stages of multiculturalism, are likely to become less clearly defined, as ethnic communities experience more internal diversity and more first and second-generation Australians have multiple cultural identities and affiliations that can both overlap and change over time."

A religious nation? 

Australia remains a religious country, with 60% of our population reporting a religious affiliation. However, the proportion of people reporting no religion, including people with secular and other spiritual beliefs, has increased.

Professor Adam Possamai from the School of Social Sciences and Psychology says Australia has lessened its claim to being a Christian country.

"Australia has become more of a secular country with around 22% of the population claiming to have no-religion in the former census to close to 30% in this round. It is the first time in the history of our country that the no-religion category is the largest group in Australia," says Dr Possamai.

"In 2011, it was the Catholics (around 25%) who are now down to around 23%. Australia is also more a non-Christian country as religions other than Christianity are at around 8% (from 7% in 2011)."

Technology and internet use 

Dr Jenna Condie from the School of Social Sciences and Psychology says the 2016 Census data shows that the number of households where at least one person accesses the web continues to increase.

"The vast majority of Australian households (83.2%) have someone in the home that accesses the web. We can take this as a good sign, given the web increasingly mediates all aspects of our lives," says Dr Condie.

"However the data suggests that there are still a good number of Australian households not online (14.1%) and it is important that existing social inequalities are not furthered by advances in digital technologies.

"It would be useful to know more about the quality of Australia's web use – how well are people using the web and what do we need to do to support people to use the web in meaningful ways?"

Australia's ageing population

Australia's once youthful population is ageing slowly. Our median age is now 38. It was 23 in 1911, 28 in 1966, and 37 in 2011.

The Census suggests that the "greying of Australia" is continuing – with 84,000 more people aged 85 years and older than in the 2011 Census. Today, people who are 85 years and older comprise 2.1% of our usual resident population.

Dr Paul Marshall from the School of Science and Health says this information reinforces the importance of physical activity for healthy ageing.

"A larger proportion of our population are now above 65," says Dr Marshall. "So it is important to more actively engage with this community, to help with physical activity and safe exercise advice."

Professor James Arvanitakis from the Graduate Research School says, as our diversity continues to expand, Australia will be better prepared for the social, economic and global challenges ahead.

"The ageing of the workforce means that moves to limit migration and add artificial barriers like citizenship tests are short-term political strategies that are placing Australia's future prosperity at risks," says Professor Arvanitakis.

"Our ageing population also means that institutions such as universities must be properly funded to assist in the economic restructuring that is needed."