Australians are redefining what romantic relationships and families look like

Australians are redefining what romantic relationships and families look like

This piece further examines findings by the Melbourne Institute Applied Economic & Social Research HILDA Report 2021. Read more of our coverage here.

In Australia, we’re pretty used to the idea that people in committed, romantic relationships will end up living together under the same roof.

But according to the latest data from the annual Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, there’s a growing number of Australians drifting away from this traditional path by choosing not to live with their intimate partner.

This trend has been dubbed ‘Living apart together’ by Dr Esperanza Vera-Toscano, an economist and senior research fellow at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, and an author of the latest HILDA report. According to the report, in 2019, more than 1.5 million single Australians reported having an intimate partner they didn’t live with. 

As you would expect, ‘living apart together’ is most common among younger Australians who may still be living at home with their parents or living in a share house, but almost 10 per cent of those aged over 45 also report they have intimate partner they don’t live with.

According to Dr Vera-Toscano, this is a considerable number, and it indicates there’s been a cultural shift in Australia, changing the reality of what a romantic relationship constitutes. 

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Dr Vera-Toscano also notes that the Australian marriage rate has decreased at the same time the divorce rate has increased.

“We cannot deny that we are seeing a qualitative shift in our understanding of family, with these types of results,” Vera-Toscano told Women’s Agenda.

“We need get used to the fact that the traditional pathway of meeting someone, having a relationship that ends up in marriage and children, has changed. There are other situations that need to be brought into the picture. It’s important we understand them.”

Young women living at home for longer 

In 2019, independence was a far-away reality for many young Australians, with the HILDA report highlighting a clear trend rise in the proportion of 18- to 29-year-olds living at home with their parents, compared to 2001.

It’s also young women who are more likely to remain living at home with their parents for longer. In 2001, 62.7 per cent of women aged 18 to 21 lived at home and 32.3 per cent of those aged 22 to 25 did so. Fast forward to 2019, and these numbers have risen to 79 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively. 

Dr Vera-Toscano says the trend is due to a range of factors, including the fact that young women are now more likely than men to go to university, and on average, will have lower weekly earnings than their male counterparts. Rising house prices in many parts of the country could also play a role. 

“The greater involvement of women in pursuing more education means that they are less financially independent, and they are postponing moving out of their parents’ household,” says Vera-Toscano.

“Together with the fact there has been a reduction in full time employment, means women are more likely to face greater difficulties in gaining that financial independence.”

According to Dr Vera-Toscano, it’s not easy to predict how the pandemic will impact on this trend but notes the economic upheaval has certainly changed the equation for young people in Australia. 

On one hand, she expects next year’s HILDA findings to show that in 2020, even more young people lived at home with their parents for longer, after experiencing job losses and declining incomes. 

But on the flip side, with reduced opportunities for international travel and reduced rental prices, many young people may have had more disposable income to spend on housing.

Women are having fewer children than they thought they would

There has been a long-term trend of decreasing fertility rates in Australia and many other high-income countries. 

The HILDA survey’s findings show that by age 35, one in four women, and one in three men, hoped to have a one or more children in the future. By the age of 49, about half said they hadn’t had the number of children they thought they would.

Also, the average age at which women have children has increased dramatically and is now close to 30 years of age for a first child. 

So why are we having fewer children? Dr Vera-Toscano says there are many reasons, but it can be partly explained by women spending more time in higher education, and more time in the labour market than in the past.

“Or maybe, you never find a suitable partner, or maybe if you do find that person, they’re not ready to have a child when you are,” she says. 

You can read the full findings of this year’s HILDA report, here. 

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