Whilst we often hold up the suburban nuclear family as ‘typical’ of Australian society, it is becoming increasingly clear that this form of co-habitation was a ‘special’ constellation that characterised the era of the 1950s and 1960s. Several trends mark its evident decline. The average Australian household is shrinking and ageing, and while specific historical factors are often held up to explain this shift – the sexual revolution, the advent of contraception and the rise in family planning – a broader social movement towards greater ‘individualisation’ plays a great part in this story.
The British sociologist Anthony Giddens describes the ‘transformation of intimacy’ in the later 20th century ‘late modern’ period, which continues today. We have so much more independence now from the constraints of traditional family and gender roles, that we can (and do) seek emotionally driven, egalitarian ‘pure relationships’ over traditional bonds such as marriage. This can be seen in the decline in marriage rates in Australia, and in the rising proportion of defacto couples.
Giddens’ theory goes further than marriage. It implies that human relations have become so individualised that we have lost (or can afford to lose) interest in traditional forms of cohabitation – such as the nuclear family – of any kind. This is evidenced in media concerns about the rise in childless couples, single parent families, and in particular, lone person households. However, a close examination of ABS statistics reveals a more complex picture.
The proportion of single parents, childless couples, and lone-person households in Australia increased substantially up to just past the turn of the millennium, but then slowed to almost no change. Research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies shows that while the proportion of childless couple families is projected to overtake child couple families by 2036, there is almost no projected increase in the proportion of single parent families. ABS data also shows only a very small increase in lone-person households to 2036, which is much lower than the large increases seen in countries overseas, particularly in Scandinavia and Western Europe.
Evidently, Giddens’ transformation is taking place to some degree, but seemingly at a lesser rate in Australia than in other countries. Perhaps that raises the question – what makes our families and us so special? Is the ‘Australian Suburban Nuclear Family Dream’ too strong to die?