The 2006 National Census data has just been released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, with a number of interesting details. What is also interesting is the way the media has put a spin on certain parts of the Census material. Going by some media reports, you would think that the nuclear family in Australia is nearly extinct, and that Christianity has about had it. But with a bit of number-crunching, and closer examination of the figures, it can be seen that the headlines are a bit misleading.
Consider the issue of the family. One newspaper put it this way: “nuclear families make up less than half of all households”. But is that actually the case? Not quite. Households comprised of couples with children are in fact just 45 per cent of the total. At face value, that would seem to suggest that nuclear families are in the minority.
But if the nuclear family is defined as any group of people related by blood, heterosexual marriage or adoption – which is the traditional understanding of the term – then the figure rises considerably. For example, if a couple has children who have since left home, then they would not be included in the “couple with children household” category. But many such households would exist.
Other scenarios would be if a spouse has died, or two sisters are living together, or married couples who do not have children, and so on. So the nuclear family is not quite finished yet. It is still the norm, and it is still the majority. Indeed, as the ABS puts it, “About 5 million families were counted in the 2006 Census. Couples with children continue to be the most common family type.”
One parent families are at 15.8 per cent of the population, a slight increase from 15.4 per cent in 2001. And other types of family also changed little in number, hovering at 1.7 per cent.
As to marriage, 49.6 per cent of the population are married, down slightly from 51.4 per cent in the 2001 census. Those who are separated or divorced make up 11.3 per cent, a slight increase from 2001 when the figure stood at 10.8 per cent.
Those who are widows comprise 5.9 per cent of the population, a little less than the 6.2 per cent of the last Census. Only 33.2 per cent have never been married, which is a slight increase from the 2001 percentage of 31.6. But presumably many of these people will some day get married. So in terms of numbers and percentages, it can be argued that the institution of marriage is still alive and well.
Consider also the state of religion in Australia. Again, headlines can be misleading, telling us that Christianity is on the decline. Well, only slightly. In the 2006 census, a full 64 per cent of Australians labelled themselves as Christians. That is a bit lower than the figure of the last census, done in 2001, at 68 per cent. So a slight downward change has taken place. But Christians are still a clear majority, indeed, almost a two-thirds majority.
Those who classified themselves as having no religion made up 18.7, which is a small gain from the 2001 figure of 15.5 per cent of the population. They remain as a small but growing minority.
Some of the smaller religions have made some gains. Hindus now number 148,000, comprising 0.75 per cent of the population. Buddhists are gaining in numbers, with almost 420,000, or just over 2 per cent of the population. Asian immigration would explain part of this growth. Islam has grown to 1.7 per cent of the population, with around 340,000 Muslims, thanks in part to large families.
As to Christianity, the figures are much as expected: mainline denominations are still in decline, with the liberal Uniting Church losing lots of members, now at 1,135,000, down from 1,335,000 ten years ago, in the 1996 Census. That is a loss of 200,000 people. The Anglicans are down some, with 3,715,000 members, or 19 per cent of all Australians. And the Catholics are about holding their own, numbering 5,127,000, (or 26%), which is a slight gain.
The big gains are among groups such as Baptists and Pentecostals, although these two still are small in overall percentages: 1.6 and 1.1 per cent respectively. Thus the more conservative, and Bible-based Protestants, continue to grow, while the more liberal denominations continue to decline in numbers.
So all in all, the natural family is still very much in the majority in Australia, and the Christian religion is still clearly in the majority. Immigration changes seem to account for most of the changes in religion, while the family unit remains more or less steady, with small changes regularly occurring.