Families in Australia

For statistical purposes, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) defines “a family as two or more persons, one of whom is at least 15 years of age, who are related by blood, marriage (regular or de facto), adoption, step or fostering, and who are usually resident in the same household” (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014).

ABS further defined the basis of a family as being formed by the identification of the presence of a couple relationship, lone parent-child relationship or other blood relationship.  This means that some households will have more than one family.

This definition of family reflects the diversity of families in Australia. Our forum discussion could also consider an understanding of family that changes as people move through their life course (Weston & Qu 2014).

Also, many of us would include relatives that live outside of our household unit such as siblings, parents and grandparents and their households as close family members, as well as those friends who are integral to our family’s daily life.

Families are the basic unit of society and the place where most children grow up (Weston & Qu 2014). This basic unit of society is often supported, when needed, by the broader family and community. Our connection to each other and the community is explored later in this note.

Key facts and trends

On 20 October 2015, the ABS Population Clock estimated the Australian resident population as 23.9 million people (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015a).

In 2012-13 there were 8.9 million households in Australia with 74% being family households (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015a).

About 88% (20.1 million people) of the Australian population were living in family households with most families living in households that contained only one family (96% of all family households in 2012-13).

In 2012-13, of the 17.6 million adults in Australia living in private dwellings, 64% were currently married, either in a registered marriage (52%) or in a de facto marriage (12%) (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015a).

Partnering experiences varied with age with a higher proportion of under 35 year olds having only been in de facto marriage(s) (29%), compared with those 35 years and over (9%) (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015a).

For all people 35 years and older, 69% had only been in a registered marriage, although they may have lived with their partner before entering into a registered marriage. This was a decrease from 75% in 2006-7 (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015a).

In 2012-13, almost half (46%) of all those currently in a registered marriage cohabited with their partner prior to marriage, compared with 39% in 2006-07 (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015a).

Over the period 1996 to 2011, the most common living arrangement for people in Australia was in a couple family with children and half of the population were either a partner or a child in this family type (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015b). The ABS reported a decline in this type of living arrangement from 54% of Australians living in a couple family with children (27% were partners and 27% were children) in 1996, to 49% (24% partners and 25% children) by 2011.

Between 1996 and 2011, children in one parent families increased from 6% to 7% with female lone-parents increasing from 3% to 4% while male lone-parents remained at 1% (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015b).

An increase in the proportion of people living as partners in couple families without children, from 19% in 1996 to 21% in 2011 is thought to be due mainly to the ageing of the population as well as couples putting off having children or not having children (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015b).

The proportion of people living alone remained at 9% from 1996 to 2011 (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015b).

In 2012-13, just over 3.4 million children of any age (48%) lived in couple families where both parents were employed (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015c). Of these children, 42% lived in families where their mother was employed full-time, compared with 58% in families where their mother was employed part-time.

Of all dependent children, 2.8 million lived in couple families where both parents were employed. About 869,000 dependent children lived in lone mother families while 143,000 lived in lone father families. Of the dependent children in these lone parent families, just over half (54%) had an employed parent.

About 676,000 dependent children (12% of all dependent children) were living in families without an employed resident parent, although in some cases, other people in these families were employed. There were 562,000 dependent children (10% of all dependent children) living in a family where no one was employed.

Of the 5.2 million children aged 0 to 17 years in 2012-13, 1.1 million (21%) had a natural parent living elsewhere (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015c). Of these children, 75% lived in one parent families, 10% in step families and 12% in blended families.

Children were more likely to live with their mother than their father following parent separation. Of these children who had a natural parent living elsewhere, almost four in five (79%) had a father living elsewhere.

As children aged they were less likely to have at least fortnightly contact with their natural parent living elsewhere. In 2012-13, 54% of children aged 0-9 years, 43% of children aged 10-14 years and 35% of children aged 15-17 years saw their natural parent living elsewhere at least once a fortnight.

Better understanding the Australian population

The 2014 General Social Survey (GSS) surveyed Australians aged 15 years and over to gain an understanding of the multi-dimensional nature of relative advantage and disadvantage across the Australian population as well as to report on and monitor people’s opportunity to participate fully in society (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014).

The summary findings from the GSS provide an insight into aspects of social capital including participation, support and feelings of safety and trust.  The GSS measures the resources that reflect the wellbeing of individuals and communities, with a particular focus on social capital.

This concept of social capital includes elements like community support, social participation, civic participation, network size, trust and trustworthiness, and an ability to have a level of control of issues important to them (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014).

Key to our consideration of advancing the wellbeing of Australian families are the GSS results showing changes in the level of involvement in activities connecting people to their broader community and the way people are interacting with the community outside their household.

These changes appear to be consistent with the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ ‘Measures of Australia’s Progress, 2013’ data which shows a reduction in time and opportunity that Australians have for recreation and leisure, and social and community interaction (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014).

The GSS summary findings show a decline in volunteering, which is an indicator of community support (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014). In 2014, both men and women were less likely to volunteer than they were in 2010. This decline also shows there is a drop in the proportion of people providing less formal help and assistance to others outside their household (46% in 2014 compared with 49% in 2010).

There was more stability in other ways that people support each other such as the proportion of people caring for someone with a disability, illness or old age (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014). In 2014, 19% of people were caring as described above which was similar to 2010 and 2006. This could reflect the ageing of the population.

In 2014, 95% felt able to get support from outside the household in a time of crisis (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014).  This was similar to the results from 2010, 2006 and 2002. While weekly face-to-face contact with family and friends living outside the household was lower in 2014 than in 2010 (76% compared with 79%) weekly non face-to-face contact with family and friends using voice calls, text messaging and calls using video link remained high at 92%.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data suggest that, in comparison to other OECD countries, Australia is below average in work-life balance and this is supported by the GSS data (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014). The data suggest that Australians feel time-poor, with 45% of women and 36% of men in 2014 feeling they were always or often rushed or pressed for time, compared with 21% of women and 28% of men who were rarely or never rushed or pressed for time.

In 2014, those with lower levels of education were less likely to engage in forms of community support, to feel they could have a say, and to participate in social activities (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014). People aged 18 years and over with a qualification below year 12 were less likely than people with a bachelor degree or higher to have done voluntary work in the last 12 months (22% compared with 41%) and less likely to provide help to others living outside their household in the last four weeks (38% compared with 52%).

In 2014, people who reported they were unemployed (27%), retired (29%) or not in the workforce for other reasons (26%) were much more likely than those who reported they were employed (4.3%) to live in households in the lowest weekly household income quintiles (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014).

One indicator of financial stress is whether a household has experienced a cash flow problem in the last 12 months such as being unable to pay bills on time or seeking help from family and friends. Nearly half of unemployed people lived in a household with at least one cash flow problem, as did almost a third of people not in the labour force for reasons other than retired. This contrasted with about one in five employed people who lived in a household with at least one cash flow problem in the last 12 months.

In 2012, when asked to rate their life satisfaction on a scale from 0 to 10, people in countries across the OECD gave it a 6.6 average (0 means ‘not at all satisfied’ and 10 means ‘completely satisfied’) (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014).

The GSS data, in 2014, showed that on average, Australians aged 15 years and over rated their overall life satisfaction as 7.6, which puts Australia higher than it was in 2012 and higher than the OECD average.

Overall life satisfaction is not the same across all population groups with people aged 75 years and over reporting 8.1, people aged 15-24 years 7.7, people in couple family households with children 7.7 and recent migrants 7.7.

Low satisfaction levels were recorded for people with a mental health condition (6.6), households with people who were unemployed (6.8), people living in one parent families with children (7.0), and people with a disability (7.2). People in one parent families were almost four times more likely than people in a couple family with children to report low levels of overall life satisfaction (between 0 and 4).

In 2014, one parent families with children were more than twice as likely as people in couple families with children to have ever experienced homelessness (25% compared with 10%) and almost twice as likely to have had a mental health condition (30% compared with 16%). People in these families were also more likely than people in couple families with children to have experienced two or more incidents of crime in the last 12 months, and to feel unsafe or very unsafe when walking alone in their local area after dark and when at home alone after dark (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014).

People in one parent families with children were more likely than people in couple families with children to assess their health as poor (7.9% compared to 2.8%) or fair (14% compared with 8.4%). They were also more likely to have cared for a person with a disability, long term health condition or old age in the last four weeks. They were more likely to have experienced at least one personal stressor in the last 12 months.

People in this population group were also more likely to be concerned about barriers to services with more than half (56%) of people in one parent families with children reporting they could not get health care when needed with the main reason being the cost of service. People in one parent families with children also reported experiencing barriers to other services such as Centrelink.

Fact sheets about families from the Australian Institute of Family Studies

Australian families





Glossary of terms

Life satisfaction across life course transitions

Child care and early childhood education in Australia

Demographics of living alone

Australian households and families

Australian families with children and adolescents

Families working together. Getting the balance right

Working out relationships

Parents working out work

Past and present adoptions in Australia

Families in regional, rural and remote Australia

For further information about Australia’s families see:

Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Household and family projections’

Australian Institute of Family Studies, ‘Family facts and figures’

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, ‘Child protection’

Child Family Community Australia

Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle