In a country as diverse as Australia, it is impossible to identify a set of characteristics that defines us. However, with today’s release of data from the 2016 Census, it is possible to identify some of the common characteristics, how they vary across states and territories, and how they are changing over time.
Australia undertakes a compulsory long-form census – where detailed information across several areas is required of every individual respondent – every five years.
So, what did we learn from the first set of results? According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS):
The 2016 Census has revealed the ‘typical’ Australian is a 38-year-old female who was born in Australia, and is of English ancestry. She is married and lives in a couple family with two children and has completed Year 12. She lives in a house with three bedrooms and two motor vehicles.
Australia is getting a bit older; the typical Australian in 2011 was aged 37.
First, age varies by state and territory.
With variables like age, we often find the “typical” value by taking the median. In essence, we (statistically) line everyone up from youngest to oldest, and find the person who is older than half the population but younger than the other half.
In Tasmania, the median age among 2016 Census respondents was 42. But in the Northern Territory, it was 34. Those in Australian Capital Territory were also quite young (median age 35), whereas those in South Australia were relatively old (40).
The NT population’s relatively young age is influenced by the very high proportion that identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.
While we don’t have updated estimates for that proportion (either for the NT or nationally), the data released today show that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is quite young. The median age nationally is 23. New South Wales and Queensland have the youngest Indigenous population, with a median age of 22.
This release also tells us something about the different migrant profiles across Australia. Nationally, the most common country of birth for migrants is England. And the median age of migrants is much older than for the Australian-born population (44 compared to 38).
The most common country of birth for migrants living in Queensland was New Zealand; in Victoria it was India; in NSW it was China. There may not be too many more censuses until the most common migrant nationally was not born in England.
Ahead of the forthcoming federal budget, there has been a lot of media and policy attention on housing affordability. Today’s release of census data points to some subtle differences across Australia that may influence policy responses.
Nationally, the most common tenure type is owning a three-bedroom home with a mortgage. In Queensland, however, renters make up a roughly equal share of the population. But, in Tasmania and NSW, more people own their own home outright. And in the NT, renting is the most common tenure type.
In a finding that won’t surprise many, the typical female does a bit more unpaid work around the house than the typical male. The most common category for males is less than five hours a week. The most common for females is five to 14 hours.
We won’t know how this compares to paid work for a while yet – or whether these differences vary depending on age.
The profiles released today offer us limited information. But the census remains one of Australia’s most important datasets.
When detailed data are released in June and then progressively throughout the rest of 2017, we will be able to dig deeper into small geographic areas or specific population groups.
We will be able to ask if there are pockets of Australia with significant socioeconomic disadvantage, and if it is worsening. We will be able to hold governments accountable for the progress we have made on the education, employment and health outcomes of the Indigenous population.
And we will be able to test whether the languages we speak, the houses we are living in, and the jobs that we are doing, are changing.
But those questions rely on a high-quality census.
The attention on the 2016 Census until now has been mostly negative. There was increased concern related to data privacy, the failure of the online data entry system on census night, and staff cuts at the ABS.
In October 2016, the ABS estimated the response rate to the 2016 Census was more than 96%, and that 58% of the household forms received were submitted online. But what matters more than how many people filled in the census and how they did it is whether the responses given were accurate. We therefore need to see a lot more interrogation of the data before taking the results at face value, but we can remain cautiously optimistic.
The ABS will be hoping that now some data is released, attention will shift to what the results tell us about Australian society. It is to be hoped the data will be robust, the insights will be newsworthy, and policy and practice will shift accordingly.
We won’t know this for sure until the first major data release of data June 27 – the data released today were just a sneak peak.
The first release of data from the 2016 Census shows the typical Australian woman spends between five and 14 hours a week doing unpaid domestic housework. For the typical Australian man it’s less than five hours a week, suggesting women still assume the lions’ share of the housework.
National statistics from 2006 showed that women account for the majority of unpaid domestic work time, spending 33 hours a week in domestic work. Before we write these off as the bemoans of well-resourced first world problems, it is important to note that housework and the mental labour associated with its organisation have real and long-term economic consequences, particularly for women’s employment.
Economists often factor in housework as one dimension of a person’s total amount of time in a day. People weigh all of their time demands – work, family and leisure – and make rational trades between these to maximise resources and efficiency. The problem with this rational-choice approach, research shows, is women consistently trade time in employment for greater time in domestic work even when their resources are on par with men. This is in a society that equates femininity with domesticity.
Women spend more time in housework even when they are single and working full-time. Although single women do slightly more housework than single men, it’s during singlehood that housework time is most equal by gender. When women start to cohabit, their housework time goes up while men’s goes down, regardless of their employment status. These gender gaps in housework linger over time and widen even further when children enter the picture.
Some economists have argued that the traditional division of housework and employment maximises each partners’ skills and increases efficiency within a marriage. Feminists have spent decades challenging this argument by pointing out being a woman does not make one more skilled in scrubbing toilets.
And, the fact that women remain intimately tethered to the home based on gender role expectations, means women lose out on economic resources, a deficit that compounds over the life course. Australian women have some of the highest part-time work rates in the world, often reducing work time to part-time when children are born. A second child could knock a woman out of the labour force for close to a decade.
This means women’s total lifetime earnings are reduced, it also shortens their career ladders and results in superannuation earnings that are significantly less than their male counterparts. In fact, one in three Australian women retire with nothing in their superannuation.
The lessons from these relatively small daily housework numbers – 43 to 120 minutes – are major, showing deep and persistent mechanisms of inequality. The challenge is not housework alone but the way in which housework is embedded within broader care responsibilities.
Women are expected to stay home with young children and, while they are home, they might as well put on a load of washing. Women who work full-time are not absolved of this guilt as they remain responsible for organising the childcare and reminding family members to pick up their socks and wipe down the benches.
All of this labour requires mental energy to ensure the hamster is alive and the dishes are unloaded. It is no wonder Australian women are increasingly feeling time pressed, stressed and depressed.
One way to tackle this time squeeze is to create institutional structures that encourage men and women to share domestic work more equally. Because children often bring a mountain of laundry, providing extended parental leaves that are required to be shared by both parents is a start.
Sweden has a use-it-or-lose-it approach to parental leave requiring men to take a portion of the paid leave or the family looses this leave. The result is that men share housework more equally over the life course. Men today are more interested in sharing childcare responsibilities so the economic benefits to maternal employment from this equal sharing is a win-win for all.
How we track our economy influences everything from government spending and taxes to home lending and business investment. In our series The Way We Measure, we’re taking a close look at economic indicators to better understand what’s going on.
Understanding population characteristics is vital to inform us of challenges and opportunities, and is a necessary input in other economic indicators. The quality and timely population data found in the census is not gathered through any other means. If changes need to be made, it’s in the discussion around the census.
The census is unique in that it is a total survey of the population, covering a range of social and economic variables. At present, it is the only way such data is obtained in Australia.
Without the census, we wouldn’t know how many we are, who we are and where we live. This means important planning and policy issues couldn’t be addressed. The location of schools and hospitals, provision of medical facilities, funding for major infrastructure would all be done without an accurate idea of who is where.
In fact, local, state and federal governments rely heavily on data only available in the census. The number of children, working age population, travel to work information, occupations, housing suitability and vulnerable populations is all data only found in the census.
The census also allows for sub-national analyses to be performed, particularly legislated population estimates and projections. These estimates form the basis of economic indicators such as labour force statistics and gross domestic product per capita.
The estimates and projections also highlight inequalities within society, and provide opportunities for policy responses and development at a regional level.
But the purpose of taking a census goes beyond informing resource allocation, taxation and electoral representation.
The statistical benchmarks used in surveys and studies, research and analysis, and, most importantly, lower level aggregates and groups of interest can only be informed by census data. Low level aggregates allow identification of need. Identification of areas with high proportions of young people who cannot access employment or education can provide much insight into barriers to economic participation.
Quality information about homelessness, minorities, and Indigenous populations is only truly obtained via a census.
One of the arguments against the census is that we can get the same data elsewhere from the multitude of service providers that already come in contact with the public.
The problem is that these data collections are administrative. They’re collected for a reason and with limited scope.
Centrelink data is collected to provide a service. Information we provide to the tax office ensures tax compliance. Medicare doesn’t keep information about overseas nationals and people who have never had their birth registered, which is an issue in remote and Indigenous communities.
Australia’s large immigrant population would become a blind spot if we were to rely on the data the government already collects, as many aren’t eligible for certain government services. The data collected by Centrelink, the tax office and Medicare don’t provide sufficient scope. So far the census is the only data source that fits the bill.
Population registers are a viable alternative to our five-yearly censuses. Finland uses a computerised system to record population data including births, deaths, marriages, migration and so on. The Netherlands, on the other hand, conducts a virtual census by pulling together digital data from a number of different sources.
These registers offer real-time data, but they require ongoing maintenance and verification and often exceed the cost of our census. Ironically, they also need to be checked against a census. And Germany’s experience shows population registers are not always accurate.
Further, major legislation changes would have to go through for Australia to be able to pool data like this. The establishment of a national population register would be costly and demand interdepartmental government coordination.
We could also look to the United States’ method of conducting surveys in between a 10-yearly census. This mixed methodology was suggested by the ABS in 2015 to cut costs.
However, limited financial upside, together with lower quality data, makes it a risky alternative for Australia. Plus we shouldn’t think of the census as an unrecoverable cost. The Office of National Statistics in the United Kingdom estimated the costs of their 2011 census were recovered in just over a year.
So how can we improve our census?
Online census completion will save money, improve data quality and reduce data processing time. However, online collection must be balanced to ensure disadvantaged populations aren’t excluded. The end of the census collector hasn’t arrived just yet.
More importantly, we must define contemporary data needs moving into the future. An informed public conversation about migration, employment, families and our changing population is much needed to gain social licence to collect and use relevant data.
Whether the methodology of census continues as is or we introduce an alternative method of data collection, the key going forward is the question of legitimacy. Steps must be taken to justify the need to take a census, and to assuage privacy and security concerns. Without social license we’ll see the failings of the 2016 census play out over and over again.
Australia’s future relies on strong evidence we can agree on. This isn’t solely the domain of researchers. We all have a stake.
Hi all – I’m on a period of extended leave and during this time I’ll be doing a bit of travelling and having a break obviously.I don’t expect to be back Blogging until the start of September. Enjoy the break – I know I will.