Reportage

Australia by numbers

IT WAS AN embarrassing moment, probably the most embarrassing moment experienced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics this century. On a Friday in December 2004, the bureau was forced to reissue a report it had published two days earlier. In deceptively bureaucratic language, the revised version began thus: "Note the following change has been made to this document on 10/12/2004. Original text, published on 8/12/2004: 'In 2003 there were 106,400 marriages registered in Australia, an increase of 3300 (3 per cent) when compared with 2002, and the first increase in registered marriages since 1999.' "Correction on 10/12/2004: 'In 2003 there were 106,400 marriages registered in Australia, an increase of 960 when compared with 2002, and continuing the increase in the number of marriages since the low of 103,130 in 2001.' "

If any media pundits had reacted instantly to the December 8 report, they'd have been tempted to pontificate about the significance of that 3 per cent marriage jump. It could have been a monumental social shift, signalling a return to traditional values and filling Tony Abbott with optimism. Except that it was a misreading of the data.

Two days later the pundits would have been back-pedalling, because the real rise of less than 1 per cent is within normal annual variation and does not alter the 20-year trend away from marriage and childbirth that has alarmed Australia's conservatives.

The marriage mix-up was the bureau's second great embarrassment of the 21st century. The first was its admission that it had been unable to find 500,000 Australians in the 2001 census. But that sin was more understandable. Every census in every nation misses people – they're out on the night, they're homeless, they're avoiding official contact, they live in areas too remote for the collectors. Any damage that might have caused to the bureau's reputation was ameliorated by its impressive ability to estimate from other sources how many people it had missed.

The marriage mix-up was the bureau's second great embarrassment of the 21st century. The first was its admission that it had been unable to find 500,000 Australians in the 2001 census. But that sin was more understandable. Every census in every nation misses people – they're out on the night, they're homeless, they're avoiding official contact, they live in areas too remote for the collectors. Any damage that might have caused to the bureau's reputation was ameliorated by its impressive ability to estimate from other sources how many people it had missed.

The marriage mix-up came as a shock to those who follow the daily data flow from the ABS, because it demonstrated that the god of information has moments of fallibility. Before a society can improve itself, it needs to understand itself. And to understand itself,

it needs reliable data. That's why the ABS was established 100 years ago. If you can't trust the ABS to tell you how the nation is changing, who can you trust?

Journalists are bombarded daily with so-called "research" purporting to offer insights into Australian behaviour, much of it concocted by PR companies to promote particular products, and most of it based on "surveys" that break all the rules of reliability. They are also bombarded with assertions by politicians about what "the average Australian" wants, needs, worries about and won't stand for. The bureau's reputation rests on its ability to gather all the facts instead of merely sampling, or, if it does undertake a survey, to use a sample size large enough to ensure the margin for error is negligible, and then to report the facts in enough detail to show that averages are usually meaningless.

We can imagine that a few heads rolled in the bureau's hatch-match-dispatch division as a result of the misreading of the marriage figures, or maybe a senior statistician had to face ritual humiliation before a panel of his peers, or at least somebody was required to get a new pair of glasses.

I think we should, for the sake of continuing this discussion, forgive the bureau its trespass and accept it as the best possible source of insights into the state of the nation in 2005. My aim is to pull from the thousands of green and white booklets issued by the bureau every year a picture of the diversity of Australia.

 

THE BIGGEST FACT the bureau offers is that the population of Australia is 20.3 million, and rises by one person every two minutes and nine seconds. The statisticians are confident about this figure because they get quarterly reports on births, deaths and immigrant arrivals. They've worked out that, on average, there is one birth every two minutes and five seconds, one death every three minutes and 54 seconds, and a net gain of one international immigrant every four minutes and eight seconds.

In 2003, for the first time, the gain from immigration was greater than the gain from births over deaths.

Our population growth of 1 per cent a year is among the slowest in the world. Indonesia is growing by 1.3 per cent a year, Malaysia by 1.9 per cent and Papua New Guinea by 2.2 per cent. But then again, we're the same as the United States, and way ahead of Japan (0.1 per cent), Britain (0.3 per cent) and Italy (which is actually declining by 0.1 per cent a year).

The bureau projects that we'll reach 25 million in 2050, and then decline, unless we drastically boost immigration and start breeding like bunnies right now. Environmentalists such as Tim Flannery think we're already bloated, because the continent can't sustain many more than 10 million people. Entrepreneurs such as Kerry Packer think we should aim to reach 40 million, which is the tipping point to make us a world economic player. The bureau says neither of those scenarios can be achieved this century.

If your idea of fun is to watch big numbers changing, go to www.abs.gov.au and click on "Australia's population". There you'll find the bureau's nifty people clock.

 

NOW LET'S TRY to make some useful distinctions among the 20.3 million people around us. About 51 per cent of the population is female. The difference happens because men die younger than women – in any year roughly 69,000 men will die compared with 65,000 women.

The life expectancy of a boy born this year is 77; and a girl is likely to live to 83 – unless they are Aborigines, who are likely to die more than a decade younger at 60 and 65.

The bureau tells us that women are more likely than men to be old, living alone, at the movies, using a library, seeing a doctor, in a botanic garden, sexually assaulted, walking for exercise, suffering arthritis and asthma, and using contraception. They are less likely than men to be murdered, beaten up, robbed, in jail, watching a sporting event, playing golf, deaf or injured in an accident.

Half the population is over 36. The gerries are winning the numbers race: while kids under 15 are 20 per cent of the population and people over 65 are 13 per cent, by 2020, both age groups will be 17 per cent. We'd better start turning our schools into nursing homes.

In Malaysia, the median age is 25. In Japan, it's 43. Back in 1971, our median was 27. But this ageing process applies only to whitefellas. The median age of Aborigines is 21 and the fastest growing community niche is the indigenous teenager.

 

INDECISIVENESS IS ONE of our favourite faiths. The bureau says that in the 1996 census, 9 per cent of Australians did not "adequately describe" a religion, while in 2001, 11.7 per cent were in this confused condition – a growth rate of 30 per cent.

Over the same period, people who boldly declared "no religion" fell from 16.6 per cent to 15.5 per cent. The non-believers had spread rapidly over post-war decades (0.3 per cent in 1947 and 8.3 per cent in 1976) but levelled off in the '90s.

Between the 1996 and 2001 censuses, Buddhists soared by 79 per cent, Hindus by 42 per cent, Muslims by 40 per cent and Jews by 5 per cent. That's not to say there are lots of them: Buddhists make up 2 per cent of the populace, Muslims 1.5 per cent, Hindus 0.5 per cent and Jews 0.4 per cent.

Christianity seems to be split between a mainstream in decline and a radical fringe in flight. Overall, 68 per cent of Australians called themselves Christians in the 2001 census. But while Anglicans slumped from 22 per cent of the populace to 20.7 per cent between '96 and '01, and Catholics slipped from 27 per cent to 26.6 per cent, the category called "other Christian" grew by 18.4 per cent (to 2.7 per cent of the populace), and the Pentecostals were up 11 per cent to 1 per cent of the total.

Among foreign-born residents, the pattern differs. The major faith among New Zealanders is "no religion" (26 per cent, compared with 19 per cent Anglican and 15 per cent Catholic); 43 per cent of UK-born Australians say they are Anglicans; 58 per cent of Vietnamese-born Australians are Buddhists; and 98 per cent of Italian-born Australians are Catholic.

Whatever we might believe in, most of us do it passively. In the ABS General Social Survey, only 26 per cent of women and 20 per cent of men said they had actively participated in religious activities in the three months before being interviewed. You could hardly call us a nation of god-botherers.

 

ONLY 46,000 AUSTRALIANS – less than 3 per cent of the population – can really call themselves locals. The remaining 19.8 million on the continent come from carpetbaggers who blew in sometime in the past 217 years. What the bureau calls the indigenous population is growing at twice the rate of the rest – though the boom from census to census may be partly attributed to a greater eagerness on the part of Aborigines to acknowledge their heritage.

TABLE 1

Some segments of Australia's population

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics

 

About 23 per cent of the present population was born outside Australia (the same proportion as in 1901, but way up on the 10 per cent proportion in the 1947 census). A further 26 per cent had one or both parents born in another country. The main sources for overseas-born Australians have been Britain, New Zealand, Italy, Vietnam and China, but India is about to replace Vietnam as the number-four source country for new immigrants.

The 1 million British-born residents (6 per cent of the population) have a median age of 52. The 356,000 New Zealand-born residents (2 per cent) have a median age of 37. The 155,000 Vietnamese-born Australians have a median age of 38. The 219,000 Italian-born residents (1.5 per cent) have a median age of 62 – so don't expect to be buying genuine handmade pasta for much longer.

 

THE BUREAU WENT to a lot of trouble to count homeless people in the 2001 Census, working with welfare agencies and street patrols, and ended up with an estimate of 99,900, who included 14,200 "sleeping rough (in improvised dwellings or tents, or in streets, parks, cars or derelict buildings)"; 14,300 in refuges or shelters; 48,600 who were "staying with another household and had no usual residence"; and 22,900 living in boarding houses. The bureau also found that 22,900 people in caravan parks (16 per cent of caravan-sleepers on the night) had no employed people in their households and did not own their caravans.

At the other end of the spectrum are people who live alone in three– or four-bedroom houses. There are 800,000 people in this situation and they tend to be elderly and female. The bureau reports that half of all homes in Australia have three bedrooms and another quarter have four or more bedrooms, but the average household size is 2.5.

The 2001 Census found that "nearly a fifth (18 per cent) of three-bedroom dwellings had only one person living in them; more than a third (38 per cent) had only two persons".

The national growth industries are loneliness and childlessness. While 9 per cent of the population lives alone, 38 per cent of people over 18 are without a partner.

When we do get together, we're wicked. Some 70 per cent of recently married people lived in sin first (up from 30 per cent in the 1980s). In the 2001 census, 12 per cent of attached couples described themselves as "de factos" (up from 6 per cent in the 1986 census).

If we marry, we do it later: a man is most likely to be 31 when he marries, while a woman is 29 – three years older than average newlyweds a decade ago. There are 105,000 marriages a year. In the mid-1980s, there were 113,000 marriages a year. There are 55,000 divorces a year, up from 40,000 in the mid-'80s.

We're also putting off our duty to continue the species. Half the women who gave birth in 2004 were over 31.

Those baby boosters Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull had a flash of hope last year at the announcement that the 251,200 children born in 2003 was an increase of 200 on the figure for 2002, but the bureau said this was just a "faint second echo" of the baby boom that happened in the 1950s (and again in the 1970s).

The bureau predicted that by 2011, the most common family type in Australia would be couples without children, which is "related to both the ageing of the population, with baby boomers becoming 'empty nesters', and to declining fertility among younger couples".

We're not hypochondriacs. The bureau's health surveys consistently show 25 per cent of Australians saying they are in "excellent" health and 16 per cent saying they are in "fair" or "poor" health. Cross-indexing with other factors, the bureau finds that people in fair to poor health are "much less likely to have a non-school qualification ... more likely to have been the victim of an assault or break-in ... and they were more likely to have income in the lowest 20 per cent of all incomes".

If you want to know what's wrong with Australians, the bureau found the most common disorders were long-sightedness (28 per cent of adults), short-sightedness (26 per cent), back problems (27 per cent), arthritis (18 per cent) and asthma (11 per cent).

We're all getting richer but the rich are doing it more quickly. A survey conducted in 2003 showed that "in real terms, the average equivalised disposable household income" of Australians was $510 a week – which was 2 per cent higher than in 2001 and 15 per cent higher than in 1995.

TABLE 2

Among Australia's 7.5 million households

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics

 

BUT THAT IS another of those dreaded averages that don't reveal much. In fact, the variation is huge. A more useful way to say it is that half the population lives in a household with a disposable income below $448 a week, while 10 per cent of households make less than $218 a week and 10 per cent make more than $870 a week.

Everyone is earning more, but some more than others: "Over the period from 1994-95," says the bureau, "there was a 12 per cent increase in the real mean income of low-income people, 14 per cent for middle-income people and 16 per cent for high-income people."

The group with the highest income is couples under 35 without children – they average $765 a week, while households containing one parent with dependent children average $352 a week. Clearly we should all become DINKs.

Another get-rich-quick scheme is to move to Canberra: its mean household income is 26 per cent above the national figure, which "reflects in part the younger age profile of the ACT", says the bureau. Tasmania's mean income is 15 per cent below the national figure.

There's also a considerable country-city disparity: "At the national level, mean incomes in the capital cities were 20 per cent above those in the balance of state, and in each state, the capital city mean incomes were above those in the balance of state. The largest difference recorded was for NSW where the capital-city income was 31 per cent above the mean income across the rest of the state." Sydney's the boom town.

We cling to the myth of Australia as a land of sun-bronzed outback pioneers but 80 per cent of us live within 50 kilometres of the ocean and 70 per cent live in cities with populations above 100,000. It's easy to see why: the bureau reports that the 15 per cent of Australians who live in remote areas are more likely than city people to be in poor health, unemployed, without post-school qualifications, unemployed and in the lowest fifth of incomes. One consolation: they are less likely to be the victims of crime.

 

NORMALLY THE BUREAU doesn't dabble in attitudes, but in 2002, as part of a national health survey, it slipped in a fundamental question: are you happy? People in 18,000 households were asked to describe how they felt about their lives, using one of the following terms: "delighted", "pleased", "mostly satisfied", "mixed", "mostly dissatisfied", "unhappy", "terrible".

Conclusion: when it comes to being happy, we are. Overall, 12 per cent of Australian adults were delighted, 30.6 per cent were pleased with themselves, and 33.2 per cent were mostly satisfied, while only 1.3 per cent felt terrible. Apparently, 6 million of us are going round with smiles on our faces and most of the rest aren't complaining.

The bureau correlated the core question with a bunch of other measures to deconstruct the components of The Good Life. The happiest Australians are people who hit their targets. Asked if they had accomplished the tasks they set out to do in the past four weeks, 85 per cent thought they had. Among people who had achieved what they planned, 47 per cent were delighted or pleased with their lives, and only 1.5 per cent felt unhappy or terrible. Among people who had accomplished less than they desired, only 16.4 per cent were delighted or pleased, while 12.9 per cent were feeling unhappy or terrible.

Booze helps. Among people who averaged three standard drinks a day, 49.7 per cent were delighted or pleased and only 2.2 per cent felt terrible or unhappy. Among people who never drink, only 37 per cent were delighted or pleased with their lives and 5.9 per cent felt unhappy or terrible. The happiest drinkers are in a category the ABS calls "risky" rather than "moderate", which suggests that many Australians are balancing short-term cheer against long-term damage.

Smokers are unhappy, but it's not clear what's cause and what's effect. Only 36.4 per cent of smokers were delighted or pleased, while 42.4 per cent of ex-smokers and 45.7 per cent of those who have never smoked were in that state of bliss.

A geographical breakdown suggested Sydney is the happiest kingdom of them all. In the big smoke, 14.4 per cent of people were delighted with their lives and only 0.9 per cent felt terrible, compared with 11.4 per cent delighted and 2.1 per cent terrible in outback NSW, and 11.4 per cent and 1.1 per cent in Melbourne.

Among people who had gained no extra qualifications after school, 38.5 per cent were delighted or pleased with their lives, while people who had some tertiary training scored 46.8 per cent.

In relationships, the most miserable were separated people (9.8 per cent felt unhappy or terrible and only 23.1 per cent were delighted or pleased) while the cheeriest were the marrieds (2.2 per cent unhappy or terrible and 45.4 per cent delighted or pleased). But the never-marrieds were happier than the divorced.

And baby boomers aren't as smug as we thought. People aged 40 to 64 were less happy than those 18 to 39 (38.3 per cent of boomers were delighted or pleased, compared with 49.2 per cent of gen-Xers).

People who do lots of exercise every week were blissful – 58.5 per cent delighted or pleased, and only 1.7 per cent feeling terrible or unhappy. The obese were uncomfortable – 37.5 per cent delighted or pleased and 4.3 per cent feeling terrible or unhappy.

Clearly, we still think we're the lucky country. 

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