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Household and Family Formation

A process central to the establishment of a sense of community, household and family formation proved problematic in Melbourne's early years. Although it was to be in the forefront of Australia's major demographic transitions in the 19th and 20th centuries, in its earliest days the settlement was a place of transient households with few recognisable families. With the surviving Koorie population pushed to its outskirts, the small township existed to serve a population dominated by single men. It was only in the wake of the mass gold rush immigration that children came to form a significant proportion of the city's population. Women born in the period 1837-51 were to have larger families than any of their successors, creating a 'baby boom' which saw the proportion of children aged 5 to 14 in the city's population grow by 8.15% in the period 1861-71.

As the city's sex ratio was more even than that of surrounding country areas, urban men were more likely to marry and women increasingly less so. On average young adults in Melbourne married earlier than those in rural areas but this varied by class with middle- and upper-class men having to wait longer to achieve their full earning potential. A 'surplus female' population was evident by the 1870s resulting in a fall in the average age of marriage for men, from 28 in 1866 to 25 in 1881, while the age for women rose slightly from 23 to 24. By 1901 the proportion never married in the 45 to 49 age group was remarkably similar: 16.8% for men, 15.4% for women. The Melbourne family was born modern. Unless precipitated by pregnancy, marriage was predicated upon the ability of the husband to provide a home independent of that of either set of parents. Young families fuelled suburban expansion moving out along public transport routes from their family of origin. Of the five suburbs with the highest birthrate in 1871 only Footscray continued to appear in the list by 1925, Brighton, Sand-ridge, Brunswick and Hawthorn having been supplanted by Preston, Coburg, Northcote and Camberwell as the suburban frontier moved on. Manoeuvring prams alongside the unmade roads of the unsewered outer areas was to be an experience common to new families for at least a century. Yet not all families were able to share in the suburban ideal, with death and desertion providing a similar level of single-parent households in the 1890s to that produced by divorce a century later. Boarding houses in the city slums provided accommodation close to casual employment, for supporting mothers and their children, an issue of increasing concern to child rescue workers and social reformers.

Completed family size in Melbourne, always the lowest in Australia, fell from a high of 6.4 for women born in the period 1837-41 to 4.4 for those born in the 1860s, a decline which continued until World War II. Although first births, up until the introduction of oral contraceptives in the 1960s, usually followed closely upon marriage, married couples increasingly used other contraceptive measures to increase the interval between subsequent births and to limit completed family size in the interests of social mobility. The introduction of compulsory education in 1872 and of secondary education and declining opportunities for and acceptance of youth employment after World War I increased the period of childhood dependency, shortening the period during which young people contributed to family income prior to forming their own families through marriage.

The birthrate, which fell to a low of 16.9 per 1000 during the 1930s depression, was reversed during World War II. Although housing shortages led to more multi-generational households, the age at first marriage declined for both men and women, with a greater proportion marrying than ever before, increasingly more than once because of a rising divorce rate. Melbourne shared in the postwar baby boom with the birthrate rising to 22.5 per 1000 in 1961, spurring dramatic suburban growth and generating a demand for children's services.

The 1970s saw a dramatic reversal in these trends with the wider availability of both abortion and contraceptives breaking the nexus between sex, marriage and reproduction, while increasing tertiary education participation rates combined with the casualisation of the youth labour market compelled young people to be dependent on their parents for longer periods of time. Although young people in Melbourne had less need to leave home for work or education than rural youth, an increasing proportion now chose to do so, sharing accommodation with sexual partners or other young people. The initial departure from the family home was less likely to be permanent, with adult children moving between dependence and independence well into adulthood as jobs and relationships changed. The proportion of Melbourne couples who lived together before marriage rose from 8% in 1968-70 to more than 70% in 2001, and an increasing proportion appear to be choosing not to marry at all. The lower marriage rate also reflects a growing acceptance of gay and lesbian households, particularly in the electorates of Melbourne Ports, Batman and Higgins.

Melbourne has the lowest fertility rate in Australia, with completed family size standing at 1.54 in 2001. The proportion of children in the city's population has fallen in line with the birthrate which stood at 12.4 per 1000 in 2000. The proportion of single-parent families is rising, particularly in lower socio-economic areas. As the population ages household size declines, with only 50% of households in 2001 accommodating traditional nuclear families. Levels of home ownership, higher than in other State capitals, reduce geographic mobility as the population ages. In the suburbs that grew dramatically in the postwar period, schools are closed and infant welfare centres are converted into Senior Citizens' clubrooms and day hospitals for the aged. Melbourne's new families continue to settle on the urban fringe living out a continuing, if declining, Melbourne dream.

Family type by select statistical divisions
Melbourne TotalInner Melbourne Moreland Outer East
Couple with children442310142171504034952
Couple without children289592250641232019746
One parent with children130788731355679432
Source: ABS 2001 census

Shurlee Swain

Larson, Ann, Growing up in Melbourne: family life in the late nineteenth century, Australia Family Formation Project Monograph No 12, Canberra, 1994. Details