Partnerships at the 2006 census: preliminary findings.

Author:Heard, Genevieve
 
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INTRODUCTION

Married and de facto partnerships in Australia are the site of continued dramatic change. In 2004 Birrell et al. reported a 'precipitous' decline in proportions partnered over consecutive census collections. In particular, proportions married were shown to have 'plummeted' between 1986 and 2001. (1)

The explanation provided for these trends was primarily economic. Noting that the decline in partnering was particularly marked among men and women without post-school qualifications, Birrell et al. hypothesised that insecure employment at the lower end of the job market had left many without the resources to form families.

Data from the 2006 census now permit an update on these trends. The focus of this brief article is change in the relationship patterns of men and women aged 20 to 44 years over the course of the decade to 2006. The article examines these patterns for groups of men and women by educational attainment and by income. It argues that these groups are primarily distinguished by patterns of marriage, more so than de facto partnering.

PROPORTIONS PARTNERED, 1996 TO 2006

Table 1 reveals some stabilisation in proportions partnered between 2001 and 2006, albeit from low levels. Among men, over half aged 25 to 29 years, one third aged 30 to 34 years, and a quarter aged 35 to 39 and 40 to 44 years are unpartnered. Unpartnered women are a considerably smaller proportion of all women in the younger age groups, but nevertheless exceed one quarter by 35 to 39 years and 40 to 44 years.

The stabilisation evident in proportions partnered is due to increased proportions living in de facto relationships (as high as 21 per cent among men and women aged 25 to 29 years, up from 14 per cent in 1996). However, proportions married continued their sharp decline. The proportion of women aged 30 to 34 years who were married fell to 56 per cent in 2006, down nine percentage points from 1996. Meanwhile, the proportion of men in this age group who were married fell below half (49 per cent), down eight percentage points from 1996. These are substantial changes in the course of only one decade.

Marital dissolution cannot explain the declining proportions of men and women in married partnerships. On the contrary, Table 2 shows that proportions separated and divorced have declined among men and women of all ages. Rather, it seems men and women are increasingly reluctant to enter marriage in the first place. Proportions ever married have declined even more sharply than proportions married.

Table 1: Social marital status by age and sex, 1996, 2001 and 2006 (a) Age Males (per cent) Married De facto Proportion of Total Total not (b) partnered who partnered partnered are de facto 20-24 years 1996 7 10 58 17 83 2001 5 10 67 16 84 2006 4 12 74 16 84 25-29 years 1996 34 14 29 49 51 2001 28 18 38 46 54 2006 25 21 46 46 54 30-34 years 1996 57 11 16 68 32 2001 51 14 22 66 34 2006 49 18 26 67 33 35-39 years 1996 68 8 11 76 24 2001 63 10 14 73 27 2006 60 13 18 73 27 40-44 years 1996 72 6 8 79 21 2001 68 8 11 76 24 2006 65 10 14 75 25 Age Females (per cent) Married De facto Proportion of Total Total not (b) partnered who partnered partnered are de facto 20-24 years 1996 16 14 46 30 70 2001 12 16 57 28 72 2006 10 18 65 27 73 25-29 years 1996 48 14 22 61 39 2001 41 18 30 58 42 2006 36 21 37 57 43 30-34 years 1996 65 9 13 74 26 2001 59 12 17 71 29 2006 56 15 21 71 29 35-39 years 1996 70 7 9 77 23 2001 66 9 12 75 25 2006 63 11 15 74 26 40-44 years 1996 72 5 7 77 23 2001 68 7 9 75 25 2006 65 9 12 74 26 Source: ABS cat. no. 2068.0- 2006 Census Tables; author's calculations Notes: (a) Excludes persons who were temporarily absent on census night. (b) Includes same-sex couples. It is tempting to explain away these trends in terms of the continuing de-institutionalisation of marriage, by which is meant the weakening of the social expectation that partnerships will take the form of traditional marriage. (2) This phenomenon is common to many western countries: the UN states that 'formal marriage is receding everywhere' (3) Yet further disaggregation of these trend data by educational attainment and by income suggest that socio-economic factors are at play, complicating the broad-brush picture of marriage 'receding everwhere'.

PARTNERSHIPS BY EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT

With the increased take-up of education and paid work by women in the post-war era, some observers have considered it self-evident that increased female economic independence serves to lower the incentive to union formation. (4) Investment in education has brought a greater capacity for women to exercise choices regarding marriage, motherhood and work. The greater the investment, the greater the financial incentive to favour work. Commentators often assume that more highly educated women acquire a less traditional orientation, place less emphasis on family, and as a result are less likely to form partnerships. (5) This expectation particularly applies to marriage, as the most binding of commitments to family.

Table 3 shows that, in Australia, the status of...

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