Family policy has fallen off the radar
By Don Edgar
Dec 4, 2022
In a single life span we have moved from a 'we' society to an 'I' society, as Robert Putnam puts it in his seminal study in the late nineties entitled Bowling Alone. The value of reciprocal responsibilities within our community has been upended by individualism and divisive tribalism. In this context the story of 'the family' is revealing.
When we were growing up in the post war years the prevailing view, both in politics and the media, was that 'family' meant the nuclear version of Mum, Dad, and kids, with Dad as sole breadwinner and Mum as the key homemaker. The concept of family morphed into John Howard's 'white picket fence' ideology when budgets were talked about by how tax and social security policies would affect ' the ' family. The only variation was the much-maligned one-parent family, blamed on the new no-fault divorce Family Law Act (FLA, 1975). Government social policies were based on those stereotypes.
Having grown up in a widowed family and having studied family sociology at Stanford University I knew the reality was different. When I was appointed as foundation director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) in 1980, I instigated research that soon put paid to any singular view, documenting the growing variety of family types, and showing that the FLA had not 'caused' the breakdown of traditional marriage.
Established by an amendment to the Family Law Act, the AIFS's first study addressed the reasons behind the 'flood' of divorces in 1976. That study found most of those couples had been separated for several years, reluctant to use 'blame' rather than a mutual breakdown in relationship as a reason for formal divorce.
Our first major study of new Family Formation patterns revealed that demographically and socially, family life was not the idealised stereotype. Other studies on the cost of children and Family Reformation led to a flurry of reform in child maintenance, foster care and attitudes towards joint parenting. The new Child Support Scheme was based on these findings. Even though the system was complicated by lawyers seeking lucrative conflicted settlements and feminist resistance to the view that it was the children's best interests, not the mother's right to alimony, that justified mandatory payments, we were beginning to build a more cohesive society supporting families by government policy.
The trends we documented in the early 1980s - later age at leaving the parental home, later marriage and childbearing (influenced by the availability of the Pill) showed major societal shifts in young people's attitudes to and the timing of marriage, having children, and partner employment. These trends have continued but are now discussed more in economic terms than in terms of their impact on social and family cohesion.
Family relationships changed as parents were facing a new younger generation of children as friends, still financially dependent but intent on living their own lives, bringing home sexual partners, often refusing to follow the then-conventional pathways of family life. The data revealed the central significance of childcare, housing availability, the difficulties of step-parenting, the importance of equal pay and women's workforce participation, still discussed today but often in isolation from the importance of optimum child development and family wellbeing.
We conducted longitudinal studies of childcare, women's workforce participation, early childhood development and child poverty which changed the practice of many welfare agencies. The media at that time reported the research factually and helped promote a new approach to family support and family policy. In recent times it seems, an economic view has taken over from one of nurturing family life and social cohesion and for the media the promotion of intergenerational conflict makes for catchier headlines.
The trends we documented in the 1980s have continued apace, with 56 % of 18-20-year-old men (54% of women) still living at home, even 9.3 % of 30-34-year-olds (5% women) still enjoying (or tolerating) the luxuries of free board, meals, and parental company. That situation is now exacerbated by rising interest rates and rents, forcing even more young couples to delay their own family formation decisions; they don't just stay at home longer, they return to the 'empty nest', affecting parental decisions to downsize as they get older.
Median age at first marriage is now 32.3 years for grooms and 30.5 years for brides, with the crude marriage rate at 4.5 per 1000 residents, the lowest ever recorded. As a result, our fertility rate in 2017 was the lowest ever at 1.74 per 1000 population, down from a peak of 3.55 in 1961. But who is asking what impact such changes have on social cohesion and the so-called mental health crisis?
Divorce rates plateaued in the 2000s, down from 2.8 per 1000 population in 1999 to just 1.9 per thousand, up slightly to 2.0 per 1000 in 2017, despite the population doubling since 1970. Separation rates are higher for de facto couples, living together with successive partners now being the norm rather than a frowned-upon state for young adults. With the legalisation of same-sex marriage (5,507 in 2019 after a rush the year before) they now comprise close to 5% of all weddings, the traditional norm of marriage as such has been reinforced, though identity politics now confuses many about their gender and future wishes.
The AIFS' research output (helped greatly by widespread media interest) shifted many of the practices of welfare agencies, youth workers, children's courts, and social security payments, supplemented by other studies of varying ethnic family values, social housing, grand parenting and step parenting. It also revealed gaps in Census questioning, since then improved to cover many such issues but still inadequate as a guide to policymaking. Ethnicity is the elephant in the room in discussions of family violence.
Little was then known about ageing, extended life expectancy, age discrimination, aged care needs, the aged being put in a separate category with little consideration of helping families support them apart from a new policy of Aged Care Packages, still inadequately funded and privatised.
A welcome call to end age discrimination and encourage more older people to stay in the workforce may lose sight of the fact that one in every four grandparents provides much needed childcare (39% regular and 62% casual/school holiday care) and the bank of Mum & Dad while inequitable is crucial to the support of young people in many ways, as well as their housing choices. With our new Labor governments, the value of lifetime experience both in and outside the workplace may at last be recognised. Currently most age care policies (offered as replacements for family care) damage family life in all its variations, making no assumptions about what 'typical' or 'normal' responsibilities is.
But the key problem underscoring social cohesion is the ubiquity of neoliberal economics, the privatisation/marketisation of everything and the consequent loss of a communitarian or family-oriented approach to policy. Even unemployment is seen as an issue for the individual, or the economy, not as it impacts on families themselves. The Covid pandemic has further fractured social relationships, not just our economic wellbeing.
Policy discussion in the Covid Age needs to return to the ways every decision could support or damage family life in all its variations. Despite its critics, family life is still the key to social cohesion and wellbeing.