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Population Characteristics: 20th century: beginning and end
Older with more females
In 1901, 113 years after the arrival of settlers from Europe, over half (55%) of the population were children or youths (aged younger than 25 years). In 1999 this age group constituted little more than a third (35%) of the Australian population. In contrast, at the start of the 20th century, those aged 35 years or older formed 29% of all Australians. At the end of the century, half of all Australians were at least 35 years of age.
Australia was a male dominated society at the dawn of the 20th century. Males comprised 52% of the general population in 1901 and would likely have represented a large majority of voters, given that prior to 1902, women were entitled to vote in South Australia and Western Australia only.1 By the middle of 1999, females had formed a slight majority of the general population (50.2%) and a marginally wider majority of those eligible to vote (50.7%).
The main factors that have influenced the change in the age profile of the population are lower fertility and longer life expectancy (see Australian Social Trends 1999, Our ageing population). Greater female life expectancy in concert with a proportionately larger older population has contributed to the excess of women over men in the population.
AGE AND SEX OF THE AUSTRALIAN POPULATION IN 1901 AND 1999
Source: 1911 Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, Statistician's report Volumes I & II; Population by Age and Sex, Australian States and Territories, June 1999 (cat. no. 3201.0).
More densely populated and more urbanised
While concentration of the Australian population in the southern and eastern coastal belt of the continent changed little during the 20th century, Australians are generally living in closer physical proximity to each other, and in more populous urban centres.2,3
In 1906, there was on average almost two square kilometres of land per inhabitant. By 1996, this had reduced to less than half a square kilometre per person. While a large increase in population density has occurred in Australia during the 20th century, it remains one of the most sparsely populated nations on this measure. However, population density does not give the complete picture. Large areas of the continent (particularly inland) are virtually uninhabited, while some coastal regions are very heavily populated.
At the start of the century, almost half the population lived on rural properties or in small towns (less than 3,000 people). Although one in three Australians lived in a city of at least 100,000 people in 1906, the most populous cities, Sydney and Melbourne, had populations only of little more than half a million people (538,800 and 526,400 respectively).
In stark contrast, most Australians (53%) lived in a city of close to, or more than, a million people in 1996. These city dwellers outnumbered almost threefold those living in small towns and rural properties, whose proportion of the total population had fallen to 18% in 1996.
URBANISATION IN 1906 AND 1996
(b) Comprising at least 3,000 people.
Source: Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia, Statistics for period 1901–1907, No.1 1908; unpublished data, 1996 Census of Population and Housing; 1999 Year Book Australia (cat. no. 1301.0).
Wider cultural diversity
Australia entered the 20th century as an overwhelmingly Christian nation whose inhabitants had been born almost exclusively in Australia, the United Kingdom or Ireland. Australia ended the century with about 16% of its people born in countries other than these. While still predominantly Christian, the proportion of Australians affiliating with the Christian faith in 1996 (78%) was considerably less than it was in 1901 (98%).
Much of this change to the cultural composition of Australian society was generated by large-scale post-war migration (see Australian Social Trends 1997, Birthplace of overseas-born Australians, pp. 12-15) and a growing tendency for Australians to not affiliate with any religion.
Indigenous Australians continue to be a relatively small but very important part of Australia's rich cultural tapestry. In 1901 there were an estimated 93,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.4 By 1996, their number had grown to 386,000.5
CULTURAL DIVERSITY IN 1901 AND 1996
In 1911, when the minimum school leaving age was 14 years (12 in Queensland), fewer than one in three (31%) 14 to 15 year olds still attended school. With only 2,465 university students Australia-wide in 1911, rates of participation in education were very low for older teenagers (3% of those aged 18 or 19 years) and negligible for those aged 20 years or older (less than 1%).
Extension of the compulsory school age to 15 years (16 in Tasmania) and the need to undertake post-school education to acquire marketable skills to compete in the job market has resulted in teenagers staying in education for longer, and older Australians being more likely to be studying. In 1996, over half of all 18-19 year olds (53%) were attending an educational institution, along with 12% of all Australians aged 20 years or older.
RATES OF PARTICIPATION IN EDUCATION IN 1911 AND 1996
With less confined gender roles
Working-age males in each major age group in 1999 were less likely to be in the labour force (engaged in paid employment, or unemployed and looking for work) than were males in corresponding age groups in 1911. Lesser likelihood of being part of the labour force has been far more pronounced among teenage males and men aged 60 years or older than it has been for 25-44 year old men.
Set against this shift towards reduced male labour force participation has been sharply increased female participation. Apart from women aged 65 years or older, whose low participation rate in 1911 (8%) was even lower in November 1999 (3%), the likelihood of females having, or looking for, paid employment was considerably greater in 1999 than it was in 1911. The largest percentage point increases occurred for women of child bearing and child rearing ages (20-54 years).
Some of the observed declines in labour force participation rates since 1911 may be attributable to greater participation in education (mainly among younger people), and the establishment and development of income support measures such as social security and superannuation. Increased participation by females younger than the age-pension minimum is likely to have been influenced by changing attitudes towards the roles and rights of women over the past forty years.
A consequence of the dramatically higher labour force participation of women aged 25-54 years has been the pervasive abandonment of the traditional cultural norm that viewed a man's role primarily as 'breadwinner' and a woman's as 'homemaker'. Changes over recent decades in post-school educational attainment (see Australian Social Trends 1997, Education and employment, pp. 84-87) also indicate a trend towards the proliferation of a wider array of options in gender roles among men and women.
In tandem with a longer period of education prior to joining the workforce, earlier retirement (see Australian Social Trends 2000, Retirement and retirement intentions) and longer life expectancy may also be compressing the number of years of life in the workforce by many of today's men. On average, late 20th century Australian men could expect a shorter paid working life (in number of years, but more so as a proportion of their total lifetime). They could also expect a longer period of retirement before their death than their grandparents did. For many men, the length of this period will represent a third age in their life's span.6
LABOUR FORCE PARTICIPATION RATES IN 1911 AND 1999
More concentrated in service industry-based occupations
Despite some major differences in the way in which industries were described and classified in 1901 and 1996 (see box describing industry categories), comparisons of numbers of people employed in similar industry groupings reveal a great deal of change in the structure of Australia’s economy.
Most evident has been the large shift in employment away from the primary production industries such as agriculture, forestry, fishing and mining towards employment in service industries engaged in activities such as retail trade, finance, insurance, property management, health, education, administration and defence. Greater efficiencies in production processes through technological and organisational advances have underpinned much of this change.
Despite the large decline in the contribution of primary industries to total employment, their contribution to export income remains disproportionately high. Merchandise exports originating from the agriculture, forestry, fishing and mining industries represented a little over one-quarter of Australia's exports of goods and services during 1998-99.7
EMPLOYMENT BY INDUSTRY, 1901 AND 1996
Source: Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1911, Statistician's report, Volume I; 1996 Census of Population and Housing: Selected family & labour force characteristics, Australia (cat. no. 2017.0).
Greater value placed on home ownership
Near the end of the century, Australia was largely a nation of home owners and home buyers. In 1997-98, 71% of households had bought or were buying their homes. This contrasted with earlier in the century when, in 1911, Australians were almost as likely to be renting their homes (48%) as they were to be owning or buying them (52%).
Throughout the 20th century, Australian government policies have encouraged home ownership. The Commonwealth Government assisted soldiers returning from the First World War to purchase homes, by providing them with loans under the War Service Homes Act 1919 (Commonwealth). In the 1920s, housing policy emphasised improved opportunities for home ownership among low to moderate income households by providing financial assistance for home ownership via the Housing Act 1927-28 (Commonwealth).
After World War II, home ownership was viewed as essential in re-establishing the stability shattered by depression and war. The perception that home ownership created stability continued to be cherished by public opinion during the 1950s and 1960s. Under pressure from the States, the Commonwealth Government encouraged the sale of public rental dwellings in 1954. Also, young people were encouraged to save to buy or build their home through tax free grants provided under the Homes Savings Grant Act 1964–65 (Commonwealth).8 Various government schemes (State and Commonwealth) to assist first home buyers to purchase a home during more recent decades have continued to support the ideal of home ownership.
HOME OWNERSHIP, 1911 AND 1997-98
(a) Private dwellings occupied by owners or prospective owners as a percentage of private dwellings occupied by owners, prospective owners or tenants (1911).
(b) Households who owned their homes with or without a mortgage as a percentage of households who owned their homes with or without a mortgage or rented their homes (1997-98).
Source: Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1911, Statistician's report, Volume I; Housing Occupancy and Costs, Australia, 1997-98 (cat. no. 4130.0)
Reflecting on change
By comparing selected aspects of Australian society at the beginning and end of the 1900s, some of the enormous changes that have occurred in the structure of our society throughout the century can be seen. The culture in which a child born in 1901 was raised was clearly very different to that which will be experienced by one born at the end of the century.
Of course there have been many factors driving these changes. Numerous advances in science, medicine and technology have been important, as have been changes in social attitudes to a wide range of issues. Many of these changes have been supported by government policies, as seen through legislative changes. However, changes are also influenced by events and social and economic trends occurring overseas as well as by the actions of individuals within our society.
Most of the following articles in this edition of Australian Social Trends examine change over the more recent past. While the magnitude of change tends to be considerably less over a decade than over a century, taken together they indicate the broad direction in which our society is headed.
1 Lees, K. 1995, Votes for women: the Australian story, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
2 Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics 1914-1917, Census of the Commonwealth of Australia taken for the night between the 2nd and 3rd April, 1911; Volume 1, Statistician's Report, Including Appendices, Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Melbourne.
3 Australian Surveying and Land Information Group 1992, The Ausmap Atlas of Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.
4 Smith, L. R. 1980, The Aboriginal Population of Australia, Australian National University Press, Canberra.
5 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1998, Census of Population and Housing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, Australia, 1996, cat. no. 2034.0, ABS, Canberra.
6 Rosenman, L. and Warburton, J. 1995, 'The changing context of retirement in Australia', Social Security Journal, Dec. 1995, pp. 54-66.
7 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2000, Year Book Australia 2000, cat. no. 1301.0, ABS, Canberra.
8 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1992, Housing Australia: A Statistical Overview, cat. no. 1320.0, ABS, Canberra.