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Single-parent families crack the 1 million mark for the first time

Key points

  • Of 5.55 million families recorded in 2021 census data to be released on Tuesday, nearly 1.07 million are single-parent families
  • Just shy of half of Australians over the age of 15 were in a registered marriage on census night in 2021, at 46.5 per cent.
  • Nearly half of couples do not have children living with them.

For the first time, more than 1 million families in Australia are headed by a single parent – and in most cases this parent is female.

Of 5.55 million families recorded in 2021 census data to be released on Tuesday, nearly 1.07 million are single-parent families, and in four out of five of those, the parent is the mother.

Single parent Suzanne Fahie, with her children Charli and Jasper, photographed by The Age in 2020. Census data from 2021, to be released on Tuesday, will show that for the first time there are one million single parent families in Australia.Credit:Justin McManus

The proportion of single-parent families has increased slightly since 1996, up from 14.5 per cent to nearly 16 per cent (15.9) in 2021.

Just over half of “couple families” have children living with them (53 per cent), compared with 47 per cent of couples who do not have children living with them.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that the proportion of couple families living without children had increased steadily since 1996, when it stood at 40.8 per cent.

Registered marriage has been declining, but not dramatically.

Just shy of half of Australians over the age of 15 were in a registered marriage on census night in 2021 (46.5 per cent or 9,665,708 people), slightly down from the 2016 census percentage (47.7 per cent) and 2011 data (49.2 per cent).

Wedded numbers in 2021 were boosted by marriage equality, which was introduced in legislation in 2017. The latest census counted nearly 25,000 same-sex marriages. No figures were released for same-sex divorces or separations.

Two and a half million people (2,506,542) said they were either divorced or separated, as against 2,234,949 in 2016.

More than 1 million people are widowed, and eight out of 10 of these are female.

Marriage equality advocates celebrate the “yes” vote in Sydney in 2017. The vote produced 25,000 extra registered marriages in 2021 census data.Credit:Anna Kucera

The pandemic appeared to make an impact on the number of grandparents caring for grandchildren, said statistician David Gruen.

“In 2016, the census saw an increase of nearly 140,000 people over 55 who took care of other people’s children, to more than 825,000. However, in 2021 we have seen that figure drop by 50,000 to under 775,000, he said.

When 2016 census data came out, Dr Brendan Churchill, research fellow at the University of Melbourne, noted that while the image of the typical nuclear family, “mum, dad and two kids”, still permeated how we defined and understood the family in contemporary Australia, the face of the family had changed significantly.

In 2016, “of these 6 million families, the most-common family form was the couple family with no children (37.76 per cent″⁣, Churchill wrote in The Conversation.

The next most common family type was couple families with dependent children under the age of 15 (30.64 per cent).

The latest family type data will be released on Tuesday, but even in 2016 Churchill noted: “These proportions confirm that the nuclear family is no longer the most common family form in Australia.”

In 2016, around 30 per cent of all families were two-person families. A further 27 per cent were four-person families.

He noted that families are becoming increasingly more “blended”, as couples dissolved (due to separation, divorce or death of a partner) and new families were formed.

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