Trends and Statistics of the Contemporary Family

If the family is society’s “fundamental unit”, what are some of the emergent trends and statistical truths about the unit in these times of accelerated change? If one of our goals, as counsellors, is to assist families in the crisis of transition, we must understand the changes and concomitant stressors that accompany the new forms. In this article, we look at some trends and statistics of the “contemporary family”.

Current trends affecting family life

Casper and Bianchi (2002) have identified five trends which, increasing in strength, have affected the composition of the modern family:

  1. Young adults have tended to delay marrying, living more time with parents, friends, or unmarried partners;
  2. Increasing numbers of heterosexual relationships have opted for cohabitation: as a way of getting ready for marriage, as an alternative to it, or as a better choice than living alone. Similarly, more same-sex cohabitation (in romantic partnerships) is occurring among gays and lesbians;
  3. As the divorce rate goes up, the stigma of having a child out of wedlock decreases, and marriages tend to be postponed, there is a concomitant growth in single-parenting;
  4. Women’s participation in the labour force has been increasing, and there is simultaneously a decrease in the “traditional” family/household structure of two parents but only one wage-earner;
  5. Delayed and declining fertility has resulted in fewer children and smaller families.  This, combined with increasing longevity, has added to the number of years that people spend “post-children.” This has generated an increase in the number people living independently of family in their retirement years. (Casper and Bianchi, 2002, pp 7-8)

The five trends above have spawned a plethora of adaptations that the family unit must take on in the name of its own survival. Yet adaptation – the process of giving birth to successive incarnations of oneself – is not always a smooth or easy process. As you will see from the statistics below, the family, comprised of fallible and often vulnerable human individuals, does not always achieve its goals of protecting its members and preparing them for their role in the larger society.

We look at the phenomena of marital breakdown, the increase in lone parent households, the rise in blended and step families, the increase in same-sex families with children, the incidence of domestic violence, and the challenge of disability or illness in the family.

Marital breakdown

Anyone who has experienced divorce (either as spouse or child) knows that the period leading up to separation and beyond is not easy to live through. At least, the composition of the household changes, as one partner becomes non-resident, or children are passed back and forth between the two. It can be a time when emotions run high, and money runs low.

People may doubt their competence or worthiness to receive love, and the spectre of rejection and abandonment hangs over the family. Yet nearly one out of two children growing up today can expect to become part of Australia’s divorce statistics as their parents split up. In 2001, 53,400 Australian children under the age of 18 experienced the divorce of their parents. An unknown number of other children experienced the separation of their cohabiting parents. In total, almost a million children had a natural parent living elsewhere (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2002).

The divorce rate in Australia is about 43 per cent. That is: 43 per cent of marriages can be expected to end in separation within 30 years (Divorce Rate, n.d.). Divorce rates are somewhat higher in the United States and Canada, at 48 per cent (Blended Family Research and Statistics, 2010), and lower in Japan (27 per cent) and Singapore (10 per cent) (Divorce Rate, n.d.)

Lone parent households

With one partner non-resident, the family becomes a lone parent household, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, it is the woman with whom the children continue to reside.  Some will not remain lone parent households long, moving on to becoming a blended or step family (below).  But for those, especially women, who do remain a single parent with children, financial hardship – and all the attendant consequences in health, education, and social status – is a likely result.

Here are the numbers:

  • The number of lone-parents is projected to rise from 0.9 million to 1.4 million between 2006 and 2031, with the percentages being 16% in 2006 and 17% in 2031 (the much higher figure for 2031 is due partially to population growth). (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010)
  • Women continue to be the principal parent in one-parent families, accounting for 83% or 1.2 million parents in one-parent families by 2031 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010).
  • Over 40 per cent of younger women and nearly 60 per cent of older women will live below the poverty line following divorce (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2002).

Blended or step-families

The Australian Institute of Family Studies (2002) defines a “blended family” as a couple family where there are at least two children, one of whom belongs to both of the remarrying partners, and one of whom is a step child of either member of the couple. By contrast, a “step family” is a couple family which has at least one child who is a step child of either parent, but no child which is the natural offspring of both of the partners (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2002).

The increase in blended and step families comprises one of the largest demographic trends in Australia, brought about by both the rising divorce rate and the tendency of people to “stick it out” in an unsatisfying marriage for some years before divorcing. Thus, they come to re-partnering with children in tow. Sadly, the odds are not in favour of remarriages, as a higher proportion of second marriages fail than first marriages. And not all of these second-time-around couples actually remarry; note the rise in cohabitation among re-partnered people.

Here are salient statistics about blended and step families:

  • Currently, one third of registered marriages celebrated in Australia (33 per cent) involve at least one previously divorced partner. This is a consequence of the increase in divorces over the past few decades, which has resulted in more divorced people in the population (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006a).
  • These statistics for Australia compare to 43 per cent of marriages in the United States being remarriages (Straub & Straub, n.d.)
  • About 70 per cent of remarriages involving children end in dissolution within five to six years (Blended Family Research and Statistics, n.d.).
  • Children in step or blended families mainly live with their mother.
  • In 1997, 43 per cent of couples in step families were cohabiting compared with 53 per cent in 2001 (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2002).

Same-sex households with children

Perhaps one of the most controversial trends in recent times is that of same-sex couples becoming families. Same-sex couples are defined as persons of the same sex living together in the same household and reporting a de facto relationship (Same-sex couple families, 2006). Gay men or lesbian women may bring children with them from previous (heterosexual) marriages, or they may seek a third party donor to create children (such as lesbian women who seek donor sperm to combine with the fertile egg of one of the women in the partnership).

The legal status of same-sex partnership has undergone changes in recent years, rendering public acknowledgement of the relationship more appealing. Currently, most states of Australia legally recognise same-sex couples in matters of superannuation, hospital and coronial rights, property settlement, taxation, compensation payments and wills and estates (Greig, 2003, in Same-sex couple families, 2006). Same-sex couple families are smaller, younger, and more affluent than their opposite-sex counterparts, as shown by the following.

Incidence of same-sex couples with children:

  • There were about 20,000 same-sex couples counted in the 2001 Census (up from 10,000 in 1996, the increase presumably due to more people being willing to identify as part of a same-sex couple).  11,000 of these were male and 9000 were female.
  • The percentage of families without children was higher for same-sex couples, at 95% of male same-sex couples and 81% of female same-sex couples, compared with 43% for opposite-sex couples.
  • Of the couples with children, a higher proportion of same-sex couples had only one child (49% of male same-sex couples and 54% female same-sex couples, compared with 34% of opposite-sex couples). (Same-sex couple families, 2006)

Relative age and income levels:

  • Partners in same-sex couples tended to be younger than partners in opposite-sex couples, with 20% of male and 22% of female partners in same-sex marriages aged under 30 years, compared with 11% of partners in opposite-sex couples.
  • Same-sex couples appeared to be better off in terms of work, with 92% of families having at least one partner employed in 2001. In comparison, 75% of opposite-sex couples had at least one partner employed.
  • The median weekly family income for families was $1,588 for male same-sex couples and $1,422 for female same-sex couples, compared with $1,046 for opposite-sex couples (Same-sex couple families, 2006).

Families experiencing domestic violence

What do we mean by “violence”? Also called relationship violence, intimate partner violence, and gender-based violence, domestic violence occurs in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships.  It is most commonly perpetrated by a man against a woman, and traditionally occurs within a domestic setting.  People often think of violence as being comprised of physical assault, but for those intent on perpetrating violence, there are a number of forms of abuse to choose from:

  • Physical abuse: threatening or physically assaulting someone, including punching, choking, pushing and shoving, hitting, throwing things, smashing things, damaging property, assaulting children, and hurting pets.
  • Sexual abuse: Any unwanted sexual contact, including rape.
  • Psychological abuse: Emotional and verbal abuse, such as humiliation, threats, insults, swearing, harassment, or constant criticism and put-downs.
  • Social abuse: Isolating one’s partner from their friends and/or family, denying one’s partner access to the telephone, controlling and restricting the partner’s movements when they go out.
  • Economic abuse: Exerting control over household or family income by preventing the other person’s access to finances and financial independence.
  • Spiritual abuse: Denying or manipulating religious beliefs or practices to force victims into subordinate roles or to justify other forms of abuse (Morgan and Chadwick, 2009).

Prevalence of violence

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2006b) Personal Safety Survey, about one in three Australian women have experienced physical violence during their lifetime, one in five has experienced sexual violence, and nearly one in five has experienced violence by a current or previous partner. While many of the statistical facts we report below are to do with violence to the partner as opposed to the children, the harm done to the children is as severe as what the victim herself experiences.

This is because the trauma experienced by children witnessing the violence and/or unable to protect their mother reaches far into those children’s future, causing issues related to cognitive, emotional, and social functioning and consequent behavioural problems; anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues; issues related to education and employment; increased risk of involvement with violence; and future problems with parenting (Flood and Fergus, 2008; Tomison, 2000).

The Survey found that:

  • 4.7 per cent of women (363,000) were physically assaulted in the 12 months prior to the survey and of these women, 31 per cent (73,800) were assaulted by their current or former partner.
  • 10 per cent of men (779,800) were assaulted in the 12 months prior to the survey, 4.4 per cent (21,200) by their current or former partner.
  • 2.1 per cent of women (160,100) and 0.9 per cent of men (68,100) aged 15 years and over have experienced violence from a current partner and 15 per cent of women (1,135,000) and 4.9 per cent of men (367,000) have experienced violence from a former partner.
  • 78 per cent of people who reported being a victim of physical violence at the hands of a partner in the previous 12 months were female (Morgan and Chadwick, 2009; ABS, 2006b).

A second Australian survey reported that one-third of women who have a former or current intimate partner experienced some form of physical, sexual or psychological violence (Mouzos and Makkai, 2004), while a third study found that the period between a relationship breakdown and separation is an especially risky time for domestic violence between ex-partners (Flood and Fergus, 2008).

Impact of domestic violence

Not only victims and their families, but all of society pays a high price – in both dollars and other costs – for domestic violence, and it is getting worse. In 2002-2003, the total cost of domestic violence to victims, perpetrators, friends and families, communities, government and the private sector was estimated to be more than eight billion dollars. In 2008-2009 the cost to the Australian economy for violence to women and children alone was estimated at $13.6 billion dollars. Estimates are that by 2021 the cost will be nearly 16 billion dollars (KPMG, 2009). These figures include costs associated with:

  • Pain, suffering and premature mortality (which accounts for almost half of all associated costs; more than half of female victims were killed by their partner. Many victims perceive the emotional impacts of abuse as being worse than the physical injuries incurred);
  • Provision of health services (domestic violence causes physical injury, anxiety, depression, and impaired social skills, and increases the likelihood that victims will engage in practices harmful to their health, such as substance abuse or self-harm);
  • The impact on employment and productivity (jobs, schooling, and social networks are interrupted when women and children are forced to flee due to violence);
  • Replacing damaged property, defaulting on personal debts and moving (domestic violence is the most common factor contributing to homelessness among women and their children, who are often forced from their homes in order to escape violence);
  • Exposure of children to domestic violence, and consequent need for child protection services (evidence is mounting of the association between domestic violence and child maltreatment and neglect;
  • The response of the criminal justice system, support services and prevention programs;
  • Victim compensation and financial support from a range of sources (women living with a violent partner are more likely to experience financial difficulties). (Morgan and Chadwick, 2009)

Families coping with disability/ injury or illness

The heartrending situation of Australian children with disability or injury impacts their families both financially and emotionally, perhaps more so in recent years than before because of the trend towards home, as opposed to institutional, care.

While the adjustment to the disability is, of course, major for the child, it is no less so for the carers, who are often parents giving up paid employment and an identity outside the home to assist their children. Clearly, with this challenge to a family, there is much scope for positive intervention on the part of someone extending social support.

Prevalence of children with disabilities:

  • In 1998, about 296,400 Australian children, or 7.6% of children aged 0–14 years, were estimated to have a disability. Of these, about 144,300, or 3.7% of children aged 0–14 years, had a severe disability, meaning that they needed help with such things as moving around, showering, or communicating.
  • The trend in Australia away from institutional care towards in-home care has meant that in 1998 almost all children aged 0 – 14 years with disabilities lived at home with their families.

Financial and other impact of disability on families

There is a strong association between childhood disability and low family income based on research conducted in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The financial costs associated with having a child with a disability can be particularly hard on families already living on low incomes. In some families, having a child with a disability may be linked to dependence on government benefits, and in some cases, poverty.

Some family members, especially mothers, experience more stress and a change to their wellbeing than families who do not have children with disabilities. Time and emotional commitments associated with raising a child with high support needs are usual sources of this stress. Mothers and fathers benefit significantly, both financially and emotionally, from receiving additional informal and formal support. While access to formal support services is crucial to parents, mothers have also described emotional support as possibly the most helpful coping factor.

In 1998, primary carers of Australian children with a disability were mostly mothers (85% of all primary carers), followed by fathers (10%). Over half of these carers spent more than 40 hours a week engaged directly in the care of a resident child with a disability. Around 53% of primary carers felt they needed more support, particularly in relation to financial assistance and respite care. (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), 2004)

Illness and sick leave in Australia

While statistics are not readily available for the general question of illness among family members cared for at home, the 1993 Child Care Survey collected data on the child care arrangements made by parents when their children aged 0-11 were sick.  Of the 703,000 couple families with children under 12 where both parents were employed, 410,000 had sick children in the six months to June 1993. 36% of the mothers and 16% of the fathers took time off work to care for their children. In the 147,000 families with sick children where both parents were employed full-time, 46% of the mothers and 23% of the fathers took time off work to care for the children.

In 61% of families with sick children the father was employed full-time and the mother part-time. In such families 31% of the mothers and 12% of the fathers took time off work to care for the children. Of employed lone parents, 63,000 had sick children in the period studied. 46% took time off work to care for sick children (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006c).

This article is an extract of the Mental Health Social Support Specialty “Supporting Challenged Families”. For more information on MHSS, visit


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