Human Settlements Theme Report

Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Lead Author: Professor Peter W. Newton, CSIRO Building, Construction and Engineering, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06747 7

Urban stocks and processes (continued)

Population, households and human capital (continued)


  • Types of families in households
  • The Indigenous household
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    The relationship between population and households is not a simple one. In 1991, Australia's population was 17.3 million, and by 2001 it is projected to be 19.3 million. The average annual rate of growth has been 1.2% over the decade, among the highest in the OECD (OECD 2000). But over this period, household formation has been occurring at a considerably higher level. The number of households is projected to increase from 6.2 million in 1991 to 7.5 million in 2001, an average annual growth rate of 2.0%. The numbers of households are expected to continue to increase at a rate that is higher than the projected level of population growth. Based on the 'medium' projection series of the ABS (ABS 1996b, 1999b), the number of households in Australia would reach 8.6 million in 2011, [HS Indicator 5.1] which would represent an annual average rate of growth of 1.4% between 2001 and 2011.

    A significant factor in household formation is that household size is generally becoming smaller (Figure 18). As Australia enters the 21st century, it is estimated that 70% of households have no children aged under 15 years, and that the most common type of household contains only two persons aged 15 years and over (ABS 2000a and various years). Average household size has continued to decline, reaching 2.6 persons per household in June 1999 compared to 3.3 a quarter of a century earlier in 1976. The shrinking household is predicted to continue, with the projected average household size in 2011 being 2.4 persons (ABS 1999b).

    Figure 18: Average household size. [HS Indicator 5.1]

     Average household size

    Source: ABS (1999b)

    Types of families in households

    The most common family type remains couples with children (45.8%), with childless couples comprising 36.5% of all family types. The number of single-parent families has continued to grow and is likely to comprise 15.9% of all households in 2001 (Table 12). Households with children are expected to continue declining relative to childless couples and single-parent families. These shifts away from the traditional 'nuclear family' are the result of a host of factors, including high rates of separation and divorce, an increase in the age of marriage, and a trend whereby women delay having children. These shifts towards a dominance of one- and two-person households characterised by single person and childless couple families have profound implications for housing preferences and for patterns of consumption more generally.

    Table 12: Family type, 1991, 2001, 2011. (Percentages of total.)
    Family type 1991 2001 2011
    Single-parent families 8.8
    Childless couples 31.4
    Couples with dependent children 53.9
    Other 5.9
    Total 100.0

    Source: ABS (1999b, 2000b).

    The Indigenous household

    A very different framework of analysis is required when considering Indigenous households. A key 'building block' of Indigenous settlements is housing. However, there is often not a clear one-to-one relationship between houses and family units. In contrast to the national trend for an increased proportion of households made up of single persons and childless couples, Indigenous households tend to be larger and more complex, often made up of a number of family subgroups.

    In the 1996 Census, Indigenous households were larger on average (3.7 people) than other households (2.7 people), and were more likely to be crowded. Among households which provided information on the number of bedrooms in their dwelling, 7.5% of Indigenous households recorded having more than two persons per bedroom (or in a bedsitter), compared with only 0.8% of other households. Of all households in Australia with more than two people per bedroom, about one in eight (12.1%) were Indigenous, even though Indigenous households comprised only 1.6% of all Australian households (ABS 1999c).

    These larger Indigenous households are explained partly by the fact that, in traditionally oriented Indigenous societies, large households often comprise a number of subunits that reside together, based on kinship. Such a subunit would be considered a 'family unit' in mainstream Australian society. In some cases, these Indigenous families are residing together because of a shortage of housing and are experiencing crowding. However, in other cases they reside in large groupings in keeping with their traditions.

    Indigenous housing may thus be doing the job of three or more houses as we might conceive of their use in mainstream society. Unfortunately this circumstance is often overlooked by funding agencies and designers in the Indigenous housing sector, who may continue to provide houses to Indigenous people designed for 'typical' working-class nuclear families.