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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 2003  
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Contents >> Population >> Population characteristics: Ancestry of Australia's population

Population characteristics: Ancestry of Australia's population

In 2001, the most common ancestry reported by people living in Australia was Australian (38%), followed by English (36%).


Ancestry in the 2001 Census
The 2001 Census of Population and Housing included the question 'What is the person's ancestry?', to which 93% of the population responded. Ancestry is as reported by the person and reflects their own assessment of their cultural and ethnic background. As up to two ancestries were recorded per person, some people will be counted in more than one category.

Ancestries were classified using the Australian Standard Classification of Cultural and Ethnic Groups (ASCCEG) (ABS cat. no. 1249.0). The classification recognises the self-defined and self-reported ancestries of all Australians and includes ancestries which refer to nations (e.g. French), to groups within nations (e.g. Maori, Sinhalese), or which refer to a group or region which crosses national boundaries (e.g. Kurdish, Jewish).

First generation Australians are people living in Australia who were born overseas.

Second generation Australians are Australian-born people living in Australia, with at least one overseas-born parent.


What is the ethnic make-up of the Australian population? This question is asked for practical reasons, to do with planning programs aimed at immigrants and their children, but it also has a wider interest. Both the general public and social researchers are interested in ethnic and national identity, and in issues of cultural continuity and change. Some of the cultural affiliations of people in Australia are apparent from their birthplaces, the birthplaces of their parents, the languages they speak, and their religions. However, broader information, on self-reported ancestries in the population, can also indicate cultural diversity and change in Australia.

In 2001, the two most common ancestries of the Australian population were Australian (reported by 6.7 million people) and English (reported by 6.4 million). The third most common was Irish (1.9 million people), followed by Italian (800,000), German (742,000), Chinese (557,000) and Scottish (540,000). A further six ancestries were each stated by between 150,000 and 500,000 people - Greek, Dutch, Lebanese, Indian, Vietnamese and Polish. In total, more than 160 ancestries were separately identified, many of which were relatively uncommon (70 were each stated by less than 2,500 people).

Since 1986, the fastest growth among the leading ancestries has been in South and East Asian ancestries, with Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian ancestries more than doubling in number by 2001. Lebanese ancestry also increased rapidly over the period, by 76%. These changes are consistent with the broad trends in immigration (see Australian Social Trends 2001, Coming to Australia) and the birth rates of immigrants in Australia. However, other changes seem to have resulted from people describing their ancestry differently in 2001 than they had in 1986. Among the leading ancestries, increases in Australian, Irish and German ancestries and decreases in English, Scottish and Welsh ancestries appear to reflect such shifts in perception or reporting. These reporting shifts at least partly resulted from changes in the design of the census question, in particular the introduction of a tick box format in 2001.

ANCESTRY RESPONSES - 2001
Number of people who stated the ancestryAncestries in descending order by size (a)(b)

6.7 millionAustralian
6.4 millionEnglish
1.9 millionIrish
500,000 - 999,999Italian, German, Chinese, Scottish
150,000 - 499,999Greek, Dutch, Lebanese, Indian, Vietnamese, Polish
50,000 - 149,999Maltese, Filipino, New Zealander, Croatian, Serbian, Australian Aboriginal, Welsh, Macedonian, French, Spanish, Maori, Hungarian, Russian, Sinhalese, Turkish, South African
20,000 - 49,999American, Korean, Danish, Austrian, Portuguese, Ukrainian, Japanese, Indonesian, Samoan, Egyptian, Swedish, Jewish, Swiss, Chilean, Khmer, Thai, Canadian
10,000 - 19,999Latvian, Iranian, Assyrian/Chaldean, Malay, Finnish, Bosnian, Mauritian, Norwegian, Czech, Fijian, Romanian, Tongan, Armenian, Slovene, Pakistani, Afghan, Anglo-Indian, Lithuanian, Iraqi, Burmese, Albanian, Syrian, Lao
5,000 - 9,999Torres Strait Islander, Bengali, Papua New Guinean, Cook Islander, Tamil, Estonian, Slovak, Palestinian, Salvadoran, Argentinian, Timorese, Uruguayan, Somali
2,500 - 4,999Peruvian, Kurdish, Taiwanese, Bulgarian, Sudanese, Brazilian, Colombian, Australian South Sea Islander, Coptic, Ethiopian, Nepalese, Zimbabwean, Jordanian, Hispanic (North American)
Less than 2,50070 other ancestries

(a) As up to two ancestries were coded per person, these groups are not mutually exclusive.
(b) Includes specific ancestries only, excludes residual categories such as Other British.

Source: ABS 2001 Census of Population and Housing.


Change in ancestry since 1986
Prior to 2001, an ancestry question had not been included in the census since 1986. As a result of the experience gained in the 1986 Census, the concept of ancestry was refined, a more exhaustive classification of ethnic and cultural groups was developed, and the format of the question was modified. A key conceptual difference compared with 1986 was an acceptance that the purpose of an ancestry question is to capture current ethnic or cultural affiliations, which are by nature self-perceived, rather than to attempt to document actual historic family origins. For this reason, 'Australian' was included as one of the tick box answers to the ancestry question. In contrast, in 1986 it was regarded as a less informative response and not included among the example answers to the question. For these reasons, only broad comparisons between 1986 and 2001 are possible.


Australian ancestry
In 2001, 39% of the population reported Australian ancestry (either as their only ancestry or as one of two). Almost all those who gave Australian as an ancestry were born in Australia (99%) and had at least one Australian-born parent (98%). While some people stating Australian ancestry were first or second generation Australians, most of these people had a family connection to Australia. Of the 1% who were born overseas, three-quarters had an Australian-born parent. Of the 16% who were second generation Australians, most had an Australian-born parent as well as one born overseas (91%).

Just over three-quarters of the Australian ancestry group stated no other ancestries. Among the 24% who did report another ancestry, the ancestries most commonly stated were English (reported by 13% of the total Australian ancestry group), Irish (3%), Scottish (1%), German (1%) and Italian (1%). Less than 1% of the Australian ancestry group spoke a language other than English at home.

Over half (52%) of children aged less than 15 years were reported as having Australian ancestry, a higher proportion than in older age groups. This is largely due to the lower proportion of children than adults who were born overseas.

The number of people reporting Australian ancestry in 2001 was almost double the 3.4 million (24% of the population) who gave Australian as their ancestry in the 1986 Census. This reflected a shift to reporting Australian ancestry among Australian-born people with Australian-born parents. Among these people, the proportion stating Australian ancestry increased from 33% to 56%, making this the group most likely to state Australian ancestry in 2001. There was also a substantial increase in reporting of Australian ancestry among Australian-born people with one parent born in Australia and one born overseas. Of this group, 33% stated Australian ancestry in 1986 and 49% in 2001. The explicit inclusion of Australian as an ancestry response in the 2001 Census (through its inclusion among the tick box answers) seems likely to have influenced this change. However, a real change in cultural affiliations may also have contributed. Compared with 1986, some people may have placed more value or relevance on their Australian affiliations and less on historic ties to England.

AUSTRALIAN ANCESTRY(a) - 2001
Graph - Australian ancestry(a) - 2001

(a) The proportion of the population of each age group who stated Australian as an ancestry. Those whose ancestry was not stated were excluded prior to the calculation of percentages.

Source: ABS 2001 Census of Population and Housing.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
Indigenous peoples are identified in the census by their answers to specific questions regarding whether people are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin. In 2001, 410,000 Indigenous persons were counted in the census, an increase of 16% over 1996, continuing the trend of recent years (see Population Distribution, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians 2001, ABS cat. no. 4705.0). The most common responses of Indigenous peoples to the ancestry question were Australian (59% of Indigenous people), Australian Aboriginal (25%), English (17%), Irish (7%), Torres Strait Islander (3%) and German (2%).


British and Irish ancestries
From the beginning of the colonial period until after the Second World War, people from the United Kingdom and Ireland made up a large majority of people coming to Australia. They continue to make up a substantial proportion of immigrants (for example 10% of those arriving between 1986 and 2001 came from England, the second largest group after New Zealanders). Therefore, many Australian-born people can trace their origins to these countries. In 1986, 8.2 million people (57% of the population) reported at least one British or Irish ancestry. Despite continued immigration from the United Kingdom and Ireland, in 2001 the total number stating a British or Irish ancestry decreased to 7.7 million, or 44% of the population. However, different trends were observed for the two ancestry groups.

All the British ancestries decreased in number and as a proportion of the population. English ancestry was reported by 6.6 million people (46%) in 1986. This decreased to 6.4 million (37%) in 2001. The numbers of people stating Scottish and Welsh ancestries decreased more markedly than did the number reporting English ancestry (by 27% and 29% respectively). However, in contrast to these decreases, the number of people stating Irish ancestry more than doubled, from 903,000 to 1.9 million, and as a proportion of the population this group increased from 6% to 11%. Australian-born people with Australian-born parents were the major contributors to these changes. Among these people, the proportion stating a British ancestry decreased from 59% in 1986 to 41% in 2001, while the proportion stating Irish ancestry increased from 8% to 14%.

As well as the changes to the format of the ancestry question between censuses, the reasons for these changes may include changes in the perception or awareness of British or Irish ancestry among people living in Australia. For example, it has been suggested that a new, positive stereotype of Irish people has replaced a negative view.1

Ancestry and post-war immigration
In 2001, the leading ancestries other than Australian, British and Irish, were those stemming primarily from immigration since the Second World War. These ancestry groups ranged in size from the 800,000 people reporting Italian ancestry to 151,000 reporting Polish ancestry. They included ancestries associated with earlier waves of post-war immigration, such as German (742,000) and more recent immigration, such as Indian (157,000). People who were either first or second generation Australians made up a substantial majority of all these groups, except those of German ancestry. While 42% of those of German ancestry were migrants or their Australian-born children, the majority were born in Australia to Australian-born people. German immigration to Australia was quite high in the post-war period up to the 1960s, then dropped substantially, allowing sufficient time for many German migrants to have Australian-born grandchildren. Germans were also the largest overseas-born group in Australia, other than the British or Irish born, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. At the other extreme, almost all people of Vietnamese ancestry were first or second generation Australians, consistent with the timing of Vietnamese immigration, which essentially began in the mid-1970s and increased over the 1980s.

The timing and rate of immigration from particular countries determines whether sufficient time has passed for the earliest migrants to have had Australian-born children or grandchildren, and also whether the first generation has been 'replenished' by new arrivals, or has gradually aged and diminished. The leading post-war ancestries differed in the relative sizes of their first and second generation in 2001. Among those of Italian, German, Greek, Dutch and Lebanese ancestry, people who were second generation Australians outnumbered those who were first generation. Among people of Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese and Polish ancestry, the first generation was larger than the second.

SELECTED CHARACTERISTICS OF ANCESTRY GROUPS(a) - 2001
Generations in Australia
First generation
Second generation
Australian born of Australian-born parents
Also stated another ancestry
Spoke a language other than English at home
Proportion of the Australian population
Total(b)
Ancestry
%
%
%
%
%
%
'000

Australian
1.5
15.7
82.8
24.3
1.2
38.7
6,739.6
English
18.7
21.1
60.2
41.8
0.9
36.5
6,358.9
Irish
11.4
16.4
72.1
75.8
1.1
11.0
1,919.7
Italian
30.9
44.4
24.7
33.9
42.3
4.6
800.3
German
19.0
22.5
58.5
68.3
9.8
4.3
742.2
Chinese
74.1
20.7
5.2
14.8
79.6
3.2
556.6
Scottish
28.2
26.7
45.1
57.1
0.9
3.1
540.0
Greek
37.8
46.2
16.0
21.2
68.8
2.2
375.7
Dutch
39.4
44.9
15.7
42.7
15.1
1.5
268.8
Lebanese
43.7
50.0
6.4
12.0
80.0
0.9
162.2
Indian
77.4
20.7
2.0
17.1
60.2
0.9
156.6
Vietnamese
73.8
25.9
0.3
6.0
95.9
0.9
156.6
Polish
49.3
38.4
12.3
36.7
40.1
0.9
150.9

(a) Ancestries stated by more than 150,000 people.
(b) Total includes people whose birthplace, parent's birthplaces, or language spoken at home were not stated, not codeable or inadequately described. However, these people were excluded prior to the calculation of percentages.

Source: ABS 2001 Census of Population and Housing.


In 2001, almost a quarter of the total population (24%) stated more than one ancestry. Some ancestries were typically stated as a sole ancestry, while others most often occurred in combination with other ancestries. Relatively few people of Vietnamese ancestry stated another ancestry (6%). The proportion of people stating another ancestry was also relatively low for the Lebanese (12%), Chinese (15%) and Indian (17%) ancestry groups. Compared with these groups, people of Greek (21%), Italian (34%) and Polish ancestries (37%) were more likely to state another ancestry, but the ancestries associated with post-war immigration which were most likely to occur in combination with another ancestry were Dutch (43%) and German (68%). The British and Irish ancestries were all relatively likely to occur in combination, with Irish ancestry the most extreme case (76% also stated another ancestry). Two related factors contributing to these differences are the length of time since the first immigrants of each group arrived and the extent to which people from each group have married people from different backgrounds in Australia.

Within some ancestry groups, people share the cultural tie of speaking a common language other than English. Among the leading ancestries, the proportion of people who spoke a language other than English at home was highest for those of Vietnamese (96%), Lebanese (80%) and Chinese (80%) ancestry and lowest for those of Dutch (15%) and German (10%) ancestry. In most ancestry groups, one language predominated. However, the languages spoken by those of Chinese ancestry were Cantonese (40% of the ancestry group) and Mandarin (24%), with a further 6% speaking other Chinese languages, and 9% speaking a Southeast Asian language.

Those ancestry groups most likely to speak a language other than English at home, such as Vietnamese, were associated with recent immigration, while the ancestry groups least likely to speak a language other than English, such as German, had a longer history in Australia. Other factors besides time, and number of generations in Australia, are also thought to affect the pace at which immigrants and their descendants shift to speaking only English at home. For example, the size and geographic distribution of the group and the extent to which they intermarry with people of other backgrounds, appear to be influential.2 Factors such as these may explain some of the differences in the proportion of people speaking a language other than English between ancestry groups such as Dutch (15%) and Italian (42%), where the differences in the timing of immigration are not as pronounced as between German (10%) and Vietnamese (96%).

Ancestry and birthplace
Most of the leading ancestries are strongly associated with Australia and one other birthplace. For example, in 2001, of people stating Italian ancestry, 69% were born in Australia, and 27% were born in Italy, with the remaining 4% spread across many other birthplaces. However, this was not the case for Chinese and Indian ancestry. Due to the historic migrations of people from China, especially to Southeast Asia, Chinese ancestry was associated not only with Australia (26%), China (25%) and Hong Kong (11%) but with several other birthplaces, such as Malaysia (10%) and Viet Nam (8%). Likewise, Indian ancestry in Australia was associated with Fiji as a birthplace (18%), in addition to India (43%) and Australia (23%).

BIRTHPLACES OF PEOPLE WITH SELECTED ANCESTRIES - 2001
Ancestry
'000(b)
Leading birthplaces(c)

English
6,358.9
Australia (82%), England (13%), New Zealand (3%)
Chinese
556.6
Australia (26%), China excl. SARs and Taiwan Province (25%), Hong Kong (11%), Malaysia (10%), Viet Nam (8%), Indonesia (4%), Singapore (4%), Taiwan (3%), Cambodia (2%)
Indian
156.6
India (43%), Australia (23%), Fiji (18%), Malaysia (3%), South Africa (2%), Singapore (2%), England (2%)
Croatian
105.7
Australia (49%), Croatia (42%), Bosnia and Herzegovina (4%), Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (2%)
Serbian
97.3
Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (41%), Australia (41%), Bosnia and Herzegovina (5%), Croatia (5%)
Spanish
75.2
Australia (40%), Spain (16%), Philippines (9%), Chile (9%), Uruguay (5%), El Salvador (4%), Argentina (4%), Peru (2%)
Maori
73.0
New Zealand (70%), Australia (29%)
Jewish
22.6
Australia (41%), Israel (13%), Ukraine (8%), Russian Federation (5%), Poland (7%), South Africa (5%), England (2%)

(a) Birthplaces accounting for at least 2% of the ancestry group.
(b) Includes people whose birthplace was not stated, not codeable or inadequately described or who were born at sea.
(c) People whose birthplace was not stated, not codeable or inadequately described, or who were born at sea, were excluded prior to the calculation of percentages.

Source: ABS 2001 Census of Population and Housing.

BIRTHPLACES OF PEOPLE OF CHINESE ANCESTRY - 2001
Graph - Birthplaces of people of Chinese ancestry - 2001
(a) Excluding SARs and Taiwan Province.
(b) SAR of China.

Source: ABS 2001 Census of Population and Housing.


On the other hand, people arriving in Australia from the same birthplace may have different ethnic and cultural affiliations. For example, the ancestries of East Timor-born people living in Australia were Chinese (61%), Timorese (40%) and Portuguese (10%). Of people born in New Zealand, 14% stated Maori as their ancestry, while English (52%) and New Zealander (21%) were the most common responses. As with those born in New Zealand and Australia, ancestries given by those born in some other countries often include a national ancestry and one associated with a colonial power. Thus, a large proportion of those born in Chile reported their ancestry as Chilean (63%), but Spanish was also relatively common (29%).

ANCESTRIES(a) OF PEOPLE WITH SELECTED BIRTHPLACES - 2001
Birthplace
'000(b)
Leading ancestries(c)

New Zealand
355.8
English (52%), New Zealander (21%), Maori (14%), Irish (13%), Scottish (6%), Samoan (3%), German (2%)
Viet Nam
154.8
Vietnamese (72%), Chinese (28%)
Philippines
103.9
Filipino (93%), Spanish (7%), Chinese (4%), Australian (2%)
India
95.5
Indian (71%), English (17%), Anglo-Indian (7%), Irish (3%)
South Africa
79.4
South African (48%), English (33%), Irish (6%), German (5%), Dutch (5%), Indian (4%), Scottish (3%), Australian (3%), Lithuanian (2%)
Malaysia
78.9
Chinese (72%), Malay (11%), English (6%), Australian (5%), Irish (2%)
Indonesia
47.2
Chinese (50%), Indonesian (42%), Dutch (10%), Australian (2%), English (2%)
Sri Lanka
53.5
Sinhalese (78%), Tamil (10%), Dutch (7%), English (6%)
Singapore
33.5
Chinese (65%), English (12%), Indian (9%), Australian (6%), Malay (4%), Irish (3%)
Chile
23.4
Chilean (63%), Spanish (29%), German (3%), Italian (3%), English (2%)
East Timor
9.4
Chinese (61%), Timorese (40%), Portuguese (10%)

(a) Accounting for at least 2% of the birthplace group.
(b) Includes people whose ancestries were not stated, not codeable or inadequately described.
(c) People whose ancestries were not stated, not codeable or inadequately described were excluded prior to the calculation of percentages.

Source: ABS 2001 Census of Population and Housing.


Several ancestries have links to specific religions. In 2001, Coptic ancestry was reported by 3,300 people, while 1,100 people identified themselves as Sikhs. Jewish was given as an ancestry by 22,600 people, with Australia (41%), Israel (13%), the Ukraine (8%), the Russian Federation (7%) and Poland (7%) the most common birthplaces. Of these people, 69% stated Judaism as their religion (making up 27% of all those reporting Judaism as their religion). The remainder of the Jewish ancestry group included people who stated they had no religion (15%), Christians (10%), and people who did not state a religion (4%).

Endnotes
1 O'Farrell, P. 1993, The Irish in Australia, New South Wales University Press, Kensington, NSW.
2 Clyne, M. and Kipp, S. 1997, ‘Language maintenance and language shift: Community languages in Australia, 1996’, People and Place, vol. 5, no. 4, pp. 19-27.

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