Compared with the population at Federation in 1901, Australians today are older, are more likely to live in urban areas, have fewer children and are more likely to be born overseas in countries outside of the British Isles.
Population size and growth
Stimulated by the gold rushes of the 1800s, Australia's population was recorded as being almost four million in 1901. For the first part of the 20th century, natural increase was the main contributor to population growth, as better living conditions saw births outnumber deaths. Following World War II, the total fertility rate grew and Australia actively embarked on an immigration program to boost the population. Fertility declined in the 1970s, and with a slowdown in migration in the 1990s, population growth rates were lower in the last ten years of the century compared to post-war decades. From 2001 to 2016, Australia's population increased by just over 25% to reach 24 million in 2016. Overseas migration is now the main driver of Australia's population growth, accounting for just over 55% of Australia’s population increase since 2001.
Age and sex structure
Australia’s population today is much older and has a more balanced sex structure than in 1901. At the turn of the 20th century, the median age was 22 years and just 4% of the population was aged 65 or over. Men outnumbered women (by around 110 to 100), as the population had been significantly shaped by male-dominated immigration. By the late 20th century, low fertility, declining mortality, and the ageing of the large baby boom generation combined to see an increase in the numbers of older people. The median age in 2016 was 37 years, and 15% of the population were aged 65 and over. For every 100 females there were 98 males.
In 1901, just over one in three Australians (1.3 million) lived in capital cities. In line with increasing urbanisation across the world, the proportion of Australia's population living in the capitals first tipped over 50% in 1944, and by 2016 two-thirds of the population (16 million) resided in the capitals. Australia is one of the world's most urbanised countries, with almost 90% of the country living in urban areas in 2016. Between 2001 and 2016, Greater Brisbane's population increased the fastest of any capital city (growing by 40%), followed closely by Perth (39%) and Darwin (36%).
Australia’s total fertility rate fell from an average of 3.1 babies per woman in 1921 to 1.8 babies in 2016, although fertility rates fluctuated over the period. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, fertility dropped, then reached an all-time high in the baby boom that followed World War II. Social transformations of the 1960s and 1970s, including increased female participation in the labour force and greater reproductive control, led to a rapid decline in the average number of babies per Australian woman. The total fertility rate has been relatively stable over the last three decades, and reflects the tendency for partnering and childbearing to occur at later ages than in the past.
Since the first decade of the 1900s, life expectancy at birth in Australia has steadily increased - by around 25 years for males and 26 years for females. These increases are due to declining death rates at all ages, reflecting improving living conditions, resulting from advances in public sanitation, food quality, and better health education, and medical advances such as mass immunisation and antibiotics. By 2016, a baby boy could expect to live 80 years, while a girl could expect to live 85 years, ranking Australian life expectancy amongst the highest in the world.
In 2016, almost 30% of Australians were born overseas. There have been many changes in the source countries of immigrants since Federation, when people from Britain and Ireland made up over three-quarters of Australia's overseas-born population. Following World War II, Australia accepted large numbers of people from other European countries, particularly Italy, Greece and the former Yugoslavia. Since 1973, after the dismantling of the White Australia policy and broadening of Australia's immigration policies, new groups of migrants have arrived from all parts of the world (notably from east and south Asia), increasing the diversity of Australia's population.
ABOUT THIS PRODUCT
Australian Historical Population Statistics contains a wide range of demographic data in spreadsheet format (Microsoft Excel), going back, where possible, to the beginning of European colonisation (1788) of Australia.
Australian Historical Population Statistics contains data cubes on the following topics:
1. Population size and growth
2. Population age and sex structure
3. Population distribution
6. Life expectancy
8. Country of birth
9. Overseas arrivals and departures
10. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population
See Data Cubes (I-Note) for a full listing of tables available in the 2016 update.
These data cubes contain published ABS data up to June 2016. More up-to-date data is available from the ABS website – see the individual ABS Demography publications listed as sources at the bottom of each spreadsheet. A list of related ABS and other products is also available in the Explanatory Notes and the Related Information tab.
For further information about these and related statistics, contact the National Information and Referral Service on 1300 135 070.