Source: The Weekend Australian, 16 August, 1997, (Australia Today: An 8-page special) p.4
The nuclear unit has changed shape in recent decades, but that does not mean strong bonds in the home have disappeared, writes MICHELLE GUNN Many families no longer fit the stereotype of mum, dad, two kids and a dog TO marry or not marry, to have five children or none. To live where we like, to divorce if we feel the need, for mothers to work full-time or not at all. The main difference between Australian families of today and those of decades ago can be summed up in one word: choice. And choice means many families no longer fit the stereotype of mum, dad, two kids, a labrador and a trampoline on a quarter-acre block. Just 40 per cent of families now consist of a couple with dependent children in a registered marriage. Thirty per cent of families are a couple without children, 13 per cent are lone-parent families and 8.4 per cent of all couples are in de facto relationships. The latest statistics also show about 15 per cent of us do not live with family members at all. This group includes people sharing with friends, those living in institutions and the increasing number who live alone. Social and demographic changes have also led to a decline in the size of the average household. In 1911, there were 4.6 people in every house. By 1961 this had declined to 3.65 and by 1992 the average was 2.7. One of the main reasons for this is that women are having far fewer children. But of more recent significance, according to The Australian Institute of Family Studies, are increased rates of divorce, often resulting in one household becoming two. There is also delayed marriage and child-rearing, so people are living alone longer; and the changed policy of community care, which has meant larger numbers of old people are remaining in their own homes rather than moving into institutionalised care. Many of the same trends also explain the decline in the proportion of traditional families by 7.8 per cent between 1982 and 1992. Rather than bemoaning the loss of the nuclear family, the head of research at The Australian Institute of Family Studies, David de Vaus, says we should view many of these changes as a result of people having more choice about the way they live their lives. These options, he says, are the result of improvements in medical science allowing safe and reliable contraception; the decline in the influence of religion, and the emergence of individualism as the dominant social ethos. "I think that people who talk about the decline of the family and the death of the family overplay their hand," he says. "For most people, most of the time, their family is a really important and central part of their lives." Certainly there appears to be an increase in the number of adult children living with their parents. A study by The Australian Population Association found teenagers are leaving the nest as early as ever but today's crop have a habit of coming back in their early 20s. The latest figures indicate that 53 per cent of all males aged 20-24 and 39.7 per cent of females in the same age range are living with their parents. Twenty years ago the figures were 48.6 per cent for men and 25.7 per cent for women. The difference is explained by a range of social trends - higher school retention rates, higher youth unemployment, a greater number of young people going on to university, and the trend toward later marriage. Another change in Australian family life - the growth in the number of houses containing more than two generations-is directly attributable to the number of migrants from countries in Asia and southern Europe where multifamily households are common. Meanwhile, trends such as the declining marriage rate and the increasing number of single, childless women show no signs of abating. But Dr de Vaus says it is important to compare today not only with the 1950s and 1960s (which in many ways were atypical) but also to periods earlier in the century which had marriage rates more comparable to those of today. "Some of these trends can be interpreted simply as families adapting to changing social and economic circumstances," he says. ``And some would say that it is their capacity to adapt which makes families so strong."
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