Australia's 2011 Census: Chock Full of Surprises

There is nothing better than a good old count to check out what’s really happening.  And a lot has happened across Australia over the last five years.  But what actually has happen to the country’s demographic fabric might surprise many. 
There are ten trends which I think will emerge out of our next national count on Tuesday 9th August.

1.            Acceleration towards suburbia.  Despite what we are feed by the intelligentsia most Australian’s want to live in a suburban settling.  The amount of new development on the fringe and the proportion of the population living out there will have increased over the last five years.  This trend is also likely accelerate in coming decades as to will a shift to “opportunity” regions, many of which being regional towns.  And there is the real surprise, many of those that moved to suburbia are young – the 25 to 34 age group. 

2.            Increase in household size.  Household sizes are no longer shrinking.  2006’s 2.6 people per household average will be closer to 2.8 this census and may rise even higher in the future.  Why?  The baby bonus, change in overseas migrant mix, low housing affordability and poor government decisions like, ironically, the first home owners grant and the more recent increase in owner-resident transfer duties in Queensland.

3.            More family households.  Despite forecasts of more lone person and couple households, we are likely to see an increase in the proportion of family households this census.  In fact the proportion of lone households is likely to fall, as many are forced to live in shared arrangements or move back home with family. 

4.            Increase in net wealth.  Despite the GFC, rising household costs and now declining house prices our net household wealth will have risen sharply between census periods; as too will our household incomes. Equity in our homes (and investment properties) will have also risen, with more people owning their home outright than ever before.  The August 2011 poll will also find that Australia’s net household wealth is also at a record high.

5.            Working longer.  The number of hours reported as worked each week will be up, but when they were clocked will be increasingly outside of the core 9 to 5.  Yet, and whilst not a census measurement, our productivity and ability to innovate will be down.  In broader terms our economic measurements are wrong – we have suffocating, quarterly consciousness and proprietary trading rather a focus on nurturing talent and innovation.  The county is far less dynamic as a result.

6.            Change in demographic mix.  A shift in overseas migrants from China, India, Africa and the Middle-East and less arriving here from more traditional sources such as the United Kingdom, Europe and New Zealand.  This means bigger household groups, a younger age profile and rising demand for detached housing (and burqas too).  

7.            Larger homes.  Whilst there has been shrinkage in apartment sizes of late and only really to make them easier to sell, most other housing types across Australia over the last five years have gotten bigger.  High and rising land costs, relatively cheap building costs and increasing household sizes are the main reasons why.  Our aging demographic will also want big new homes – assuming that baby boomers move – but how cheap new housing will be to build in the future is uncertain at present.  Home owners are also moving less often and the distance, when the do move, is becoming less.  “Fewer moves, local focus” should be the catch-cry for the next decade.

8.            Fewer marriages.  And those that are taking the plunge are getting married later.  The average age of mothers having their first child should exceed 30 years. 

9.            Dissolution of relationships.  Not only are fewer Australians getting married, but we are breaking off relationships at an increasing rate.  Family and relationship disbanding reflects our declining resiliency and mounting acceptance of the nanny state.  We don’t seem to overcome hardships these days, just “cut and run”.  From a housing prospective if our households are fracturing so easily, then why are our prescriptions for housing increasingly rigid?

10.          Less religion.  Last census more Australia’s nominated that they believed in the Order Of The Jedi than Christianity, so maybe the census is bunkum after all.  Yet more Australian’s are likely to nominate that they have no religion at all.  Whilst we are not America, we do live largely an American way of life and were founded on similar values – industriousness, honesty, marriage and social cohesion – but these seems to be unravelling.  This census count should show us how far lost we have become.

To paraphrase international urban authority Joel Kotkin “Whatever your politics or economic interests, the 2011 census will show that the country is changing and in a dramatic way – if not always in the ways often predicted by pundits, planners or the media.  It usually makes more sense to study the actual numbers than largely wishful thinking of mostly urban-centric, big-city based and often quite biased analysts.”  As we wrote after the last census, it maybe time for the planning industry to take a breather and set a different course with regard to our urban land use.  Hopefully this time around the planning intelligentsia will take some notice.

The Matusik Snapshot is opinion and not advice.  Readers should seek their own professional advice on the subject being discussedComments are welcome, contact me on michael@matusik.com.au.

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