Family life has changed dramatically in Australia over the past 50 years, but income equality for women is still a long way off | Greg Jericho

FFamilies are the things most loved by politicians. Next week’s budget, like all previous budgets, will be about families – and especially those in which people work. The latest family data released this week by the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that more than ever, families have more than one income to support them.

The story of families in Australia over the past 50 years is, like employment, the story of women. And it’s striking how much things have changed and how what was normal in the past now often seems weird.

When Paul Keating gave his first parliamentary speech in 1970, he said that “it is bad enough for a working man to be dragged out of his house at night when he should be with his wife and family, but that is even worse when he has to send his wife to work to make ends meet.

He spoke of the “exorbitant cost of housing” and that “husbands have been forced to send their wives to work to support living needs”.

While giving this speech, he reportedly looked around the chamber of the House of Representatives and saw many men nodding. In fact only men, because at that time there was not a woman deputy.

But times are changing and we are changing with them, and in 1995 Keating boasted that his government had achieved “the highest female labor force participation in the economy”.

1995 is now further in the past than 1970 was then, and the composition of families has continued to change.

The latest ABS family survey shows that a big change over the past decades has been from families made up of couples with dependents to couples without children or with children who have now left home. :

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In 1974, 55% of families (ie households excluding those with only single people) were the traditional two parents and at least one dependant; now they represent just over 36%.

There has been a slight increase in the number of single-parent families, but they remain very much in the minority.

We have also seen a small but significant shift towards same-sex couple families.

Just 20 years ago, same-sex couples, with or without children, made up just 0.08% of all families. There were only 4,438 such families in all of Australia. Today, there are more than 102,000 and they represent 1.5% of all 7.32 million families:

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It doesn’t look like marriage equality in 2017 had a big impact, especially as the long-term trend has continued. The change in law simply reflected societal norms rather than shaped them.

Another long-term trend that has continued that would displease 1970s Keating is the number of couples who both work.

In the late 1970s, only 41% of couples with dependents were both working. At the time Keating boasted of a record number of women in the workplace, that figure was 58%. Today, 71% of couples with dependents both work:

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This is largely because women in their 20s and 30s are much more likely to work today than women in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

At the time, the “valley of layers” of women’s participation was booming. In 1967, 60% of women aged 20-24 were working, but only 35% of those aged 25-34. By way of comparison, 78% of women in both age groups work, and this figure rises to 80% for those aged 35-54:

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Men are even more likely to be those who only work. However, even here the change is quite marked. In the late 1970s, a majority of couples who had at least one employee had only the male partner working; in only 2% of cases was the mother or wife the only partner employed:

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Today, both parents are more likely to work and only 10% more couples have only the man working than the woman.

The fact that men are still more likely to be the sole earner reflects the fact that, although total employment rates between men and women have stabilized somewhat, men are much more likely to work at full time, regardless of age:

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More importantly, between ages 25 and 59, when people are in their prime and most likely to have dependents, men are one and a half times more likely to work full time full :

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He points out that economic dependency remains a major problem for women, which can have a significant impact on their retirement and standard of living if the relationship breaks down.

There is of course a type of family where the woman is mainly the main breadwinner: single-parent families. Consistently, more than 80% of single-parent families see the mother as the one who remains responsible:

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Changes made by the Howard government and then the Gillard government to force single parents with children over eight to switch from Parental Allowance to the much lower Newstart Allowance overwhelmingly targeted women rather than men.

They may be a minority, but with just over a million such families, they deserve far more attention than they get.

When governments talk about families, they are always more likely to talk about those where both partners work. The data shows that things may have changed a lot in 50 years, but income equality is still a long way off.

Greg Jericho is a Guardian columnist and policy director at the Center for Future Work

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