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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 2005  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 12/07/2005   
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Contents >> Population >> People in their 20s: then and now

People in their 20s: Then and Now

POPULATION DISTRIBUTION

In 2001, 16% of people in their 20s were partners in a couple with children, compared with at least 40% of people in this age group in 1976.


More than ever before, the ages of 20 to 29 years are a time of transition. While people legally reach adulthood at 18 years, the years which follow are, increasingly, a time of growing independence. This article compares Australians in their 20s at the start of the new millennium with those who were in the same age group in the mid-1970s and focuses on changes in their demographic characteristics, living arrangements, family life, and participation in education and work. These two groups experienced their 20s 25 years apart, and in many ways their characteristics reflect the different social environments and trends of their times. Most social change occurs slowly, over a period of years or decades. Considering the impacts of such changes on the characteristics of particular population groups can highlight how the nature and needs of society have changed over time.



DEMOGRAPHIC CHARACTERISTICS

In 2001, there were 2.6 million Australians aged 20-29 years, accounting for 14% of the population. In comparison, the 2.2 million people in this age group in 1976 made up 17% of the total Australian population. The lower proportion of people in this age group in 2001 reflects population ageing over the period, as fertility continued to decline and the large generation of people born between 1946 and 1965 (known as the baby boomers), continued to age.

The main source countries for Australia's immigration intake varied greatly over the latter half of the 20th century, and our national identity also evolved alongside changing social trends and values. The differing composition of the population in their 20s in 2001 and 1976 reflects this. In 2001, 19% of people aged 20-29 years had been born overseas. The main birthplaces for this group were Asia (42%), Oceania (18% - predominantly from New Zealand) and the United Kingdom and Ireland (14%). In comparison, a larger proportion of people in their 20s in 1976 had been born overseas (22%), in keeping with larger migrant intakes in the 1960s and 1970s than in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1976, 40% of people in their 20s who had been born overseas were born in European countries other than the United Kingdom and Ireland. This reflects the large numbers of displaced people from these countries who resettled in Australia in the two decades following the Second World War (see Australian Social Trends 2001, Coming to Australia).

There was a shift in the religious affiliations of people in their 20s over the 25-year period between 1976 and 2001, consistent with both the secularisation of our society generally and our increasingly multicultural community. The proportion of people aged 20-29 years with no religious affiliation in 2001 (23%) was higher than in 1976 (14%), with people in this age group being the least likely of all age groups to report a religious affiliation (for more information see Australian Social Trends 2004, Religious affiliation and activity). That said, in 2001, the majority of people in this age group regarded themselves as Christian (67%). This compared with 84% of people aged 20-29 years in 1976. Conversely, higher proportions of people in their 20s in 2001 reported an affiliation with Buddhism, Hindu, and Islam than in 1976.


Comparing age groups over time

The data presented in this article are mainly drawn from the 1976 and 2001 Censuses of Population and Housing. Overseas visitors have been excluded from the data.

Some definitions and classifications have changed between 1976 and 2001. These changes have been adjusted for in the analysis to enable comparison over time, unless otherwise stated.

PERSONS AGED 20-29 YEARS: SELECTED INDICATORS

1976
2001
%
%

As a proportion of the total population
16.5
13.6
Female
49.8
49.9
Living in a capital city
66.2
68.7
Born overseas
22.4
19.4
No religious affiliation
14.5
23.2

'000
'000

Persons aged 20-29 years
2,191.3
2,560.0

Source: ABS 1976 and 2001 Censuses of Population and Housing.

Persons aged 20-29 years who were born overseas: country of birth
Graph: Persons aged 20-29 years who were born overseas: country of birth



LIVING ARRANGEMENTS AND FAMILY LIFE

Since the late 1970s there has been an increasing delay in the ages at which young people reach a range of milestones in the life cycle. This delay is very evident when comparing the living arrangements of people in their 20s in 2001 with those in the same age group 25 years earlier. In 2001, the most common living arrangement for people in their 20s was to be living in the parental home - 30% of people in this age group were living with at least one parent. In contrast, 21% of people in this age group were living with at least one parent in 1976. Conversely, while 16% of people aged 20-29 years were partners in couples with children in 2001, 40% of people in this age group were partners in couples with children in 1976, and this was the most common living arrangement for this age group at that time. In both 2001 and 1976, 21% of people in their 20s were living as partners in couples without children, and in both years, 8% of people in this age group were living alone. A higher proportion of people in their 20s in 2001 were living in group households (12% compared with 1%), suggesting a shift towards transitional living arrangements after leaving home but before forming partnerships.

The trend towards marrying later in life (and specifically towards entering a registered marriage) occurred among all ages within the 20-29 year age range. In 2001, nearly all 20 year olds had never been married (97%), with the proportion of people never married decreasing with each successive year of age. Almost half (49%) of 29 year olds in 2001 had never been married. In comparison, 76% of 20 years olds and 13% of 29 years olds in 1976 had never been married. In keeping with this, the median age at first marriage was 29 years for men and 27 years for women in 2001, compared with 24 and 21 years respectively in 1976. (endnote 1) This is partly related to young people being more likely to be studying in 2001 than in 1976 and therefore not in an economic position to marry, but also reflects the trend towards de facto partnerships rather than registered marriages.

The changes in living arrangements described above, as well as changing attitudes towards women and increased access to birth control, post-school education and a greater variety of paid work, had a particular impact on the role of women in their 20s between 1976 and 2001. A woman's 20s are physiologically her prime childbearing years and in 1976, 90% of first births within current relationships were to women aged under 30 years (13% to women aged under 20 years). However, (following on from the lower likelihood of people in their 20s to be partnered or married) women in their 20s in 2001 were less likely to become mothers for the first time than in 1976, instead delaying having children to older ages (or not having children at all). Around half (51%) of first births within current relationships in 2001 were to women in their 20s, compared with 77% in 1976. And in 2001, most of these births were to women in their late 20s, while in 1976 most first births within current relationships were to women between the ages of 22 and 24 years. In 2001, 48% of first births within a current relationship were to women aged 30 years and over, compared with 10% in 1976. (For more information on the trend since the 1970s for women to have children later in life see Australian Social Trends 2001, Older mothers).

PERSONS AGED 20-29 YEARS: SELECTED LIVING ARRANGEMENTS(a)

1976
2001
%
%

Living with parent(s)(b)
20.7
29.9
Partner in a couple family without children
20.8
20.7
Partner in a couple family with children
39.6
16.2
Lone parent
1.7
4.0
Group household member
1.4
12.4
Lone person
7.9
7.6

(a) Data on living arrangements is not strictly comparable from 1976 to 2001 due to a change in the definition of child
(b) and not living with a partner and/or child of their own.

Source: ABS 1976 and 2001 Censuses of Population and Housing.

Changing generations

People in their 20s in 1976, were born between 1946-47 and 1955-56, and are among the older members of the baby boom. They grew up over the 1950s and 1960s. Many of their parents were born around the time of the Great Depression, and experienced the Second World War as young adults.

In the 25 years to 1976... 1953: the Korean War ends... 1956: free mass program of polio vaccinations starts, television is first broadcast in Australia, the Melbourne Olympic Games take place... 1958: QANTAS international services commence... 1959: Australia's population reaches 10 million... 1962: The first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person votes under new electoral laws... 1964: The Beatles tour Australia, National Service is reintroduced... 1965: Australia joins war in Vietnam... 1967: Ronald Ryan is the last man to hang in Australia... 1971: Australia's combat role in Vietnam ends... 1972: the Australian Labor Party wins its first victory in 23 years... 1973: the Sydney Opera House opens... 1975: the Family Law Court is established and 12 months separation becomes the sole grounds for divorce... the Governor General sacks Gough Whitlam and dissolves Parliament, the Liberal National Coalition wins the Federal Election. (endnote 2)

People in their 20s in 2001, were born between 1971-72 and 1980-81, and form part of that generation often referred to as Generation X. In many cases, their parents were among the earlier baby boomers, i.e. the group of people in their 20s in 1976.

In the 25 years to 2001... 1976: the first boat people from Vietnam arrive on Australia's northern shores... 1977: Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) is established... 1979: the Full Bench of the Arbitration Commission grants maternity leave to women in private industry... 1981: the first death in Australia attributed to HIV/AIDS occurs... 1983: the ALP wins the federal election under Bob Hawke... 1984: Medicare is launched... 1986: the House of Representatives has its first woman speaker... 1987: Australia's population passes 16 million... 1988: Australia celebrates its Bicentenary, New Parliament House is opened... 1991: the Industrial Relations Commission approves Enterprise Bargaining... 1993: the Native Title Act is passed... 1996: John Howard becomes Prime Minister after a Liberal Coalition victory in the Federal Election... 1997: One Nation Party forms with Pauline Hanson as its leader... 1999: Australians vote 'no' to referendum on whether Australia should become a republic...2000: the Sydney Olympic Games are held. (endnote 2)

Persons aged 20-29 years: proportion never married
Graph: Persons aged 20-29 years: proportion never married


First births(a): age of mother
Graph: First births(a): age of mother



PARTICIPATION IN EDUCATION

Over the 1980s, there was a steady increase in the proportion of students completing school, and while this levelled out over the 1990s, school retention rates remained at higher levels than in the preceding decades (see also Australian Social Trends 2001, Trends in completing school). Further, young people have become more likely to participate in post-school education and to obtain qualifications than in the past (for more information see Australian Social Trends 2005, Multiple qualification holders).

Consistent with this, people in their 20s (and in particular those in their early 20s) in 2001 were more likely to be attending an educational institution than those in the same age group in 1976 (23% compared with 12%). Throughout the 20th century, women's participation in post-school education was lower than men's. However, in 2001, 24% of women aged 20-29 years were attending an educational institution compared with 23% of men in this age group. In 1976, the proportion of women aged 20-29 years attending an educational institution was almost half that of men in the same age group (9% and 16% respectively).

The increased likelihood in 2001, compared with 1976, to be participating in education, occurred for both men and women and for all ages between 20 and 29 years. However, the differences were greatest for people in their early 20s, decreasing with each successive year of age. This suggests that, although there has been an increase in the propensity to return to study in later life, young people going directly onto study after leaving school, or after taking a relatively short break, account for much of the increase in educational participation since the mid-1970s.

Following on from this, more people in their 20s in 2001 had obtained a non-school qualification, than in 1976 (45% compared with 31%). Further, over the 25-year period, the type of qualifications gained changed, reflecting a shift towards higher education and away from vocation education. In 2001, of people in their 20s with a qualification, 36% indicated their highest qualification was a bachelor degree compared with 13% in 1976. And while a certificate was still the most common highest educational qualification obtained among people in their 20s in 2001 (44%), the proportion of people in this age group who indicated this was their highest qualification in 1976 was much higher (67%).

Much of the growth in the proportion of people with Bachelor degrees is related to the increase in the proportion of women in their 20s who held such qualifications. In 2001, 43% of women aged 20-29 years with non-school qualifications indicated their highest qualification was a Bachelor degree, compared with 12% in 1976. For men in their 20s, the corresponding proportions were 30% and 14% respectively. Further, the proportion of women aged 20-29 years who held non-school qualifications was 45% in 2001 compared with 24% in 1976. For men in the same age group, 45% held a non-school qualification in 2001 compared with 38% in 1976.

Proportion of persons aged 20-29 years attending educational institutions
Graph: Proportion of persons aged 20-29 years attending educational institutions

Attendance at an educational institution
Graph: Attendance at an educational institution
Source: ABS 1976 and 2001 Censuses of Population and Housing.

Persons aged 20-29 years with a non-school qualification: highest level of qualification
Graph: Persons aged 20-29 years with a non-school qualification: highest level of qualification


WORKING LIFE

Over the latter half of the 20th century, people's participation and experiences in the labour force changed, along with the nature of paid work itself. Many of these changes are evident in the differing levels of participation for people in their 20s in 2001 and 1976. The labour force participation for people aged 20-29 years in 2001 was higher than in 1976
(81% and 75% respectively). However, this increase was driven entirely by increased participation for women in this age group over the period (75% in 2001 compared with 57% in 1976). This reflects increasing opportunities for women to participate in a greater variety of paid work, in some cases while studying or raising children, and to delay having children throughout most of their 20s (for more information see Australian Social Trends 2003, Changes in labour force participation across generations). In contrast, participation for men in their 20s was lower in 2001 (87%) than in 1976 (92%), largely reflecting increased participation in education beyond school for people in this age group over the 1980s and 1990s.

For men in their 20s, the reduced likelihood to be participating in the labour force in 2001 compared with 1976 was fairly constant across all ages in this age range, although the difference was largest for men in their early to mid 20s - the ages when educational participation was also highest. For women in their 20s a different picture emerges. The higher participation rates for women in 2001 compared with 1976 are most marked from the age of 23 years onwards. This is consistent with delayed fertility among women in their 20s and a greater propensity to continue to work while raising children in 2001, while women in their 20s in 1976 were more likely to have children and to leave the labour force completely while raising them.

Labour force participation rates in 2001 and 1976 were the most similar for women in their early 20s (within 10 percentage points of one another, compared with differences of over 20 percentage points for women in their late 20s). However, the reasons for and nature of their participation differed. In 2001, women in their early 20s were more likely to be working part-time while studying before moving into full-time work. Those in the same age group in 1976 were more likely to be working full-time before having children in their mid-20s.

In addition to changes in labour force participation over the last three decades of the 20th century, there were changes to the nature of paid work itself, most particularly in relation to the number of hours worked each week and the availability of part-time jobs. Because they were more likely to be participating in education (particularly in their early 20s) or to be combining work and family responsibilities (mainly women in their late 20s), people in their 20s in 2001 were more likely to be working part-time than those in this age group 25 years earlier. This is reflected in average hours worked per week. In 2001, 28% of employed people aged 20-29 years worked less than 35 hours per week on average. In 1976, 11% of employed people in this age group worked less than 35 hours per week.

In addition, employed people in their 20s in 2001 were less likely to work an average of 40 hours per week than their counterparts in 1976 (22% compared with 52%), reflecting a shift away from standard working hours over the period. However, they were more likely to work longer hours on average - 28% of employed people in their 20s worked more than 40 hours a week in 2001, compared with 22% in this age group in 1976 (for more information see Australian Social Trends 2003, Longer working hours).

Persons aged 20-29 years: labour force participation rates
Graph: Persons aged 20-29 years: labour force participation rates
Source: ABS 1976 and 2001 Censuses of Population and Housing.


Employed persons aged 20-29 years: average hours worked
Graph: Employed persons aged 20-29 years: average hours worked



ENDNOTES

1 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Marriages collection.

2 ABC Online <www.abc.net.au/archives/timeline/1950s.htm> <www.abc.net.au/archives/timeline/1960s.htm> <www.abc.net.au/ archives/timeline/1970s.htm> <www.abc.net.au/archives/timeline/1980s.htm> <www.Abc.Net.au/archives/timeline/1990s.htm><www.abc.net.au/archives/timeline/2000s.htm> accessed 27 April 2005.


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