Meet the ‘average Australian’: What the ABS social trends report says about your customers

Meet Jane. She’s 37, Australian-born, Catholic, and married with two young children.

She works almost full-time (32 hours a week) as a sales assistant, and spends five hours on housework every week. She’s got a certificate in management, and along with her husband, pays $1800 a month on her mortgage for a three-bedroom house in the suburbs.

If Jane sounds rather typical, she should. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, she’s the ‘average Australian’.

On Wednesday, the ABS released a new analysis gleaned from its 2011 national census. It’s the first time the bureau has put together a report on the ‘average Australian’, and, it cautioned, the analysis hides significant demographic diversity.

“While many people will share a number of characteristics in common with this ‘average’ Australian, out of the nearly 22 million people counted in Australia on census night – August 9, 2011 – no single person met all these criteria.”

The analysis looks at how demographic features have changed from 1911 to 2011, which is what makes it interesting, says Professor Peter McDonald, the director of the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute.

“Some of these changes are happening quite rapidly. You only have to look at the graphs and note the slope of the increases.”

For most of the twentieth century, there were more men than women in Australia. In 1911, there were 108 men for every 100 women. Now, the figure is 99 men for every 100 women. Men stopped being the majority in 1979.

Some suburbs, however, do buck the trend. Sydney’s Darlinghurst and Surrey Hills, for example, were home to large numbers of male same-sex couples. Other male-dominated areas included mining towns such as Newman and Tom Price in Western Australia.

Despite 50 years of heavy migration, most Australians can still say both their parents were born here. In 2011, nearly three quarters (74%) of people were born in Australia, a trait more than half (54%) shared with their parents.

These figures aren’t too different from those in 1911, when 83% of people were born in Australia. This increased at every census until 1947, when 90% of Australians were born here, before trending slowly down to today’s figures.

Most Australians who were born overseas live in capital cities, where 34% of people were born overseas. In towns with under 10,000 people, only 12% on average were born overseas.

McDonald says the thing that most caught his eye is the rapid rise in the number of people who speak Asian languages at home. Mandarin is now the most common language spoken at home after English.

Four in five (81%) Australians speak only English at home, which is down from 86% in 1986. Mandarin is spoken by 1.6%, and has seen the number of people fluent in it swell from under 200,000 in 2001 to 336,000 now.

Languages on the decline are Italian and Greek, while Arabic and Vietnamese are rapidly growing. All up, after English and Mandarin, 1.5% of people still speak Italian at home, 1.4% speak Arabic, 1.3% speak Cantonese, 1.2% speak Greek while 1.1% speak Vietnamese.

We’re increasingly likely to be atheists (up 3% to 22% since the last census), while 7% of us now follow non-Christian religions, of which Buddhism and Islam are the most common, followed by Hinduism.

In 1911, the average age was 25 for men and slightly younger for women. The average age rose consistently until WWII, shed five years during the 1950s (hello baby boomers) before rising steadily from 1971. Today, the average age is 37.

For both men and women, the most common job was as a sales assistant. After that, it broke down along gender lines, with men commonly being a truck driver, electrician or retail manager, while women were likely to be general clerks, primary school teachers or office managers.

This is one characteristic McDonald doesn’t expect to sit still in future censuses.

“Shop assistant is the leading occupation. That’s due to the labour intensity of the retail sector, which hasn’t been replaced by machines. That’s also the reason farming was the largest source of jobs in 1911, but now, relatively few people work in agriculture. They’ve been replaced by machines.

“Retail is still labour intensive, but that could change as more and more people shop online. Maybe next time, we’ll see a sharp rise in the number of post-office workers.”

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