Source: The Weekend Australian, 16 August, 1997, (Australia Today: An 8-page special) p.4

Choices changes
dynamics of
the family unit

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 

   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 

   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 

   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 

   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 

   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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