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Who cohabits in 2001? The significance of age, gender, religion and ethnicity.

'[T]here have been few developments relating to marriage and family life which have been as dramatic as the rapid rise in unmarried cohabitation' (Glick and Spanier, 1980: 20, cited by Schoen and Weinick, 1993: 408). This statement was made about the rapid growth in cohabiting in the USA. However, it applies equally to Australia as it does to most Western countries. Between 1982 and 2001 the proportion of all couples cohabiting without being married more than doubled, rising from 4.7 percent to 12.4 percent. While the increase in cohabiters by approximately 150 percent is dramatic, the current situation where only 12.4 percent of couples are cohabiting may not sound especially high. This figure, however, conveys only the percentage of couples cohabiting at any one point in time rather than the proportion of all couples that cohabit at some stage in their life. Our analysis, reported in this article, indicates a much higher incidence of cohabitation at some point in a person's life.

Christine Bachrach makes the point that:
   Intimate sexual unions in the western world used to follow a
   clearly defined [normative] sequence: a couple fell in love, married
   and had children. That picture has become very complicated: couples
   cohabit before or instead of marrying and they have children in
   circumstances ranging from marriage to casual sexual partnerships.
   Those who do marry are doing so at historically late ages, often
   after having become parents. (Bachrach et al., 2000: 3)

Direct marriage as opposed to cohabiting and then marrying is now the behaviour of a minority of couples in this society. '[C]ohabiting before first marriage has become the norm' (Raley, 2000: 23) throughout the Western world.

Until the early 1970s separated and divorced men and women were the principal cohabiters. At that time cohabiting was largely statistically invisible and it was also socially invisible beyond the local community (Kiernan, 2000). From the 1970s onwards we witnessed what had been the behaviour of a small minority transformed into the behaviour of the majority. We have now reached the point where it is almost a deviant act to marry without first cohabiting.

The developments that have just been described have encouraged family demographers and sociologists to produce a plethora of studies of cohabiting (e.g. Casper and Bianchi, 2002; Seltzer, 2000; Smock, 2000; Waite, 2000). The great majority of these studies have been made in the USA. There have been only a handful of studies conducted in Australia and most of these have utilized unrepresentative samples (e.g. Lindsay, 2000; Sarantakos, 1984). There have been important exceptions. First, Khoo used data gathered in the course of the 1982 ABS Family Survey to produce a socio-demographic profile of cohabiting in this country (1986, 1987). Second, Carmichael and Mason (1998, 1999) made a similar use of the 1991 ABS Census 1 percent sample to produce a more detailed and extensive profile. Finally, de Vaus et al. (2003a, 2003b) have used nationally representative data from the 2001 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics Australia Survey (HILDA) to explore contemporary patterns of cohabitation and marriage. The studies by Khoo and by Carmichael and Mason, together with a large number of US studies provide comparative data for the study being reported here.

Cohabiting is occurring across all age and social strata. However, previous research suggests that it is more common among some sections of the population. In particular, this research suggests that there are marked variations in its occurrence according to such factors as age, religious affiliation, ethnic background, employment and occupational status, and formal educational experience.

The major purpose of this article is to use the 2001 Census to establish how the likelihood of cohabiting is presently influenced by age, gender, ethnicity and religion. In a subsequent article we will explore the relationship between cohabitation and employment, occupational status and educational background. This split has been made primarily because of space considerations and is somewhat arbitrary. It is acknowledged that these variables are unlikely to be independent of one another and multivariate analysis would permit an examination of the interaction of all the independent variables. However, the matrix tables available for the census do not permit this level of multivariate analysis.

We also aim to establish the extent of stability of any links between these factors and cohabiting during the time that elapsed between the 1991 and 2001 Censuses. Carmichael and Mason's (1998, 1999) analysis of the 1991 Census provides data for this secondary purpose, as do the results of the 1996 Census (ABS, 1996). Conducting these analyses provides the necessary foundation on which to build inductive explanations for both the rapid increase in cohabiting and variations in cohabiting behaviour. Explorations of the causes of these changes and the meaning of the changes will require data from studies the primary aim of which is to describe and explain cohabiting behaviour. This type of information is not available from census sources.

Any attempt to establish the association between cohabiting and age, gender, ethnicity and religion is both facilitated and constrained by the work of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) census collection process. On the one hand, it provides an excellent source of material on key social, economic and demographic characteristics of people living in this country. On the other hand, it does not seek information concerning values, attitudes and beliefs. The latter material is indispensable to explaining variations in cohabiting behaviour. Because of our reliance for this article primarily on the census data, our exploration is necessarily partial. We would, nevertheless, contend it is essential work to increasing our understanding of cohabiting and the factors influencing it. This work should provide evidence of the impact on marriage of such changes as the separation of sex and conception, the rapid growth in women's employment, the decline in economic security associated with economic rationalism, the decline in the influence of religion, the impact of technological advances such as improvements in contraception, and the rapid growth in divorce (Beck-Gernsheim, 2002). These developments not only increase the variety of living arrangements, they also decrease the level of stability in relationships including marriages.

As Pamela Smock (2000) observes, the processes occurring in such domains as cohabiting, divorce, marriage and childbearing are mutually reinforcing. We know, for example, that marriages preceded by cohabiting are less stable than direct marriages. It is also highly likely that people observing a rising divorce rate feel less inclined to marry, and cohabit instead. In the present context, by increasing our understanding of the socio-demographic factors contributing to cohabiting we should increase our understanding of marital stability. We also know that cohabiting partners are much less likely than married couples to have children. This raises this question: is the rise in cohabitation contributing to the decline in fertility? Delineating and explaining the patterns of cohabitation may, in the longer run, contribute to our grasp of contemporary patterns of fertility and decline in fertility.


The data reported in this article come from three sources. The first, and most important, is the full 2001 Census of population and housing. The tables reported in this article were derived from special matrix tables supplied by the ABS. The matrix tables are based on all people in occupied private dwellings, excluding international visitors, and are classified according to the person's usual place of residence. While these census figures provide by far the best information available regarding rates of cohabitation, it must be borne in mind that the particular method by which the census ascertains whether or not a couple is cohabiting is likely to lead to an undercount of cohabitation (Carmichael and Mason, 1998). However, it is not possible to estimate the degree by which cohabiting unions are undercounted.

Because the 2001 Census did not gather information on the country of birth of a person's parents we have used the 1996 Census--which does include this information--for examining the relationship between ethnic origins and cohabiting patterns. Analysis of 1996 data is based on the 1 percent sample household file. Although 1996 figures are based on a sample they are, nevertheless, derived from a very large sample (76,332 partnered people) and the figures are therefore subject to very low levels of sampling error.

The third source of data is the 2001 wave of the Household, Income and Labour Force Dynamics Australia (HILDA) survey (FaCS, 2002). These data come from the first wave of this nationally representative panel survey of 7,682 Australian households and 13,969 cases. Further details of the survey and access to the data set can be obtained in Wooden and Watson (2001).

How many people cohabit?

Earlier we noted that at the time of the 2001 Census 12.4 percent of partnered people were cohabiting. However, a much larger percentage cohabit at some point in their life. Pre-marital cohabitation is now commonplace with 72 percent of couples who married in 2001 first having lived with their partner before the marriage (ABS, 2002). The frequency with which premarital cohabitation takes place has increased sharply over the last three decades. Our analysis of the HILDA data indicates that the rates have risen from less than 2 percent before 1960 to 71 percent by the late 1990s (Figure 1).


Of course rates of pre-marital cohabitation do not reflect the level of all cohabitation. Of people who cohabited between 1990 and 1994, almost 40 percent had broken up within five years (just over 40 percent had gone on to marry).

We used the HILDA data to assess the extent to which men and women ever have a cohabiting relationship (Table 1). The analysis in this table is restricted to those who have ever been partnered (married or cohabited for at least three months).

This analysis shows that, of the ever-partnered population aged over 15, 20 percent have, at some point, cohabited for at least three months (Table 1). While rates of ever cohabiting are low among those aged 55 or over, we observe much higher rates among younger people. Of those in their early 20s who have ever been partnered, two-thirds have cohabited at least once. Of those aged 25-34 almost 40 percent have cohabited at least once.

If rates of ever cohabiting are calculated as a percentage of the whole age group, rather than as a percentage only of those who have ever been partnered, different rates emerge but a similar pattern of change across the age groups is evident. This further analysis shows the percentage of each age group who have cohabited at least once:

* 18 percent of all 20-24-year-olds (mean = 1.4 cohabiting relationships for each person who has cohabited);

* 29 percent of all 25-34-year-olds (mean = 1.7);

* 24 percent of 35-44-year-olds (mean = 1.8);

* 15 percent of 45-54-year-olds (mean = 2.0);

* 8 percent of 55-64-year-olds (mean =1.6).

Which women and men cohabit? Age and previous marital status

The age pattern of cohabiting in Australia is an example of what demographers call nubile cohabitation: that is, cohabiting is more common for younger people (those in their 20s and early 30s) than older people, either as a forerunner to marriage, or an alternative to marriage (Kiernan, 2000). Nubile cohabitation is now the dominant pattern of cohabiting in Northern and Western European countries, North America and New Zealand. This age pattern reflects the impact of better contraceptive devices and the change in sexual norms that resulted in the dramatic growth in pre-marital cohabiting among those who have never been married from the 1970s onwards.

The 1991 Australian Census showed that about one in three women and four in ten men aged in their early 20s who were in a union were cohabiting. In no older age cohort did cohabiting relationships comprise a comparable proportion of unions to those prevailing among people aged in their early 20s (Carmichael and Mason, 1998).

Nubile cohabiting is more prevalent in Australia now than a decade earlier. At the present time, roughly one in two women and two in three men in their early 20s who are in a union are cohabiting (Table 2). By the time young people are in their late 20s they are much less likely to cohabit. In particular, among those in a union a little less than one-third of females and a little more than one-third of males in their mid- to late 20s are cohabiting (Table 2). Nevertheless, these proportions are much higher than those for older age cohorts. For example, only about one-twelfth of men and women who are in their mid- to late 40s and in a partnership are cohabiting. The much lower proportion of people of the latter age who cohabit reflects, in part, different historical circumstances. When these people were in their early 20s, cohabiting was less common than now. It also reflects the fact that most cohabiters eventually marry. The impact of historical change on cohabiting patterns is evident when we compare the present cohabiting rates for older age cohorts with those prevailing a decade earlier. For example, there are approximately twice as many people aged 50-54 cohabiting now as in 1991 (6.5 percent versus 3.3 percent). However, an equally important reason for lower cohabitation rates among older couples is that those who may have cohabited when younger have subsequently married.

Most cohabiters who are aged in their 20s and early 30s have never been married. However, during these years, and for all subsequent time periods, the proportion of divorced males and females who cohabit is greater than the proportion of never-married people who cohabit (Table 3). For example, among those in the 25 to 29 age range, 30 percent of females who have been divorced cohabit compared to 23 percent of those who have never been married. As Carmichael and Mason (1999) found in their analysis of 1991 Census data, by middle age the divorced rather than the never-marrieds make up the majority of cohabitors.

During the course of the life cycle there are important gender differences in the cohabiting patterns of both never-married persons and divorcees. Prior to age 45, never-married females are more likely to cohabit than never-married males. Between 45 and 59 years of age, the cohabiting rates of never-married males and females are fairly similar. Beyond that age, men's rates slightly exceed women's. The pattern is different among divorcees. Throughout the adult life cycle, male divorcees are always more likely to cohabit than female divorcees. The gap widens considerably at age 50 when 26 percent of divorced males compared to 19 percent of divorced females cohabit (Table 3). The greater propensity for male than female divorcees to cohabit rather than marry holds throughout most of the adult years. It was also evident in the 1991 and 1996 Censuses.

Several factors facilitate women's rate of cohabiting declining with age more markedly than men's. Women outlive men and it is socially more acceptable for men to choose a younger partner than it is for women to do so. Cohabiters probably still experience lower status than married persons (Maushart, 2001; Waite, 2000). Furthermore, late middle-aged women may be more concerned than men about the implications of cohabiting for their social standing.

Religious affiliation

There are theoretical reasons for expecting a relationship between religiousness and the practice of cohabiting. If, as is often argued, the rise in cohabiting is partly a manifestation of the declining influence of organized religion (Beck-Gernsheim, 2002; Rinduss and VandenHeuvel, 1990; Smock, 2000) then it is plausible to predict that people who lack any religious affiliation are more likely to cohabit than those who have one. There are also empirical grounds for expecting that the religion in which a person is raised, or the absence of any religious upbringing, will affect the likelihood of her or him cohabiting. In an Australian context Siew-Ean Khoo (1987) reported that people who were not practising a religion were two to three times more likely to cohabit than those who were practising.

There is a considerable body of overseas research as well as some recent Australian research that demonstrates that religious behaviour is associated with holding attitudes and adhering to norms that are likely to discourage cohabiting. The crucial cultural factors impeding cohabiting are sexual norms, and attitudes to having children and to divorce (Carmichael and Mason, 1999; Lehrer, 2000).

As already mentioned, among the major factors believed to be responsible for the rise of cohabiting has been a revolution in young people's sexual behaviour. This revolution undermined the moral argument for opposing cohabiting (Bumpass, 1990). Notwithstanding the dramatic growth across most sections of the society in tolerance toward pre-marital sex, many churches and church leaders continue to oppose sex outside wedlock (Langford, 1985; Monti, 1995). For example, ethicist Joseph Monti affirms that, for the contemporary church, heterosexual marriage is '[S]till the best model for morally informing our sexual behaviour' (1995: 238). It is also the case that individuals with a church affiliation are more likely than those without to disapprove of sex outside of marriage and therefore are less likely to cohabit.

Our analysis of the Australian sample from the 1998 International Social Science Survey found that 33 percent of Catholics and 25 percent of mainstream Protestants, compared to just 6 percent of those with no religious affiliation, thought that pre-marital sex was always or nearly always wrong. Similarly, 62 percent of regular church attenders, compared to just 10 percent of those who never attend, said that pre-marital sex is always or almost always wrong. The Christian churches present marriage as the most or only appropriate context for conceiving and raising children (Monti, 1995). They have traditionally viewed conceiving children as the principal or at least a principal reason for sexual activity within marriage. By promulgating such beliefs and values the churches foster the notion that marriage (not cohabiting) and children belong together. For these various reasons it is not surprising that those with a religious affiliation are less likely to cohabit than those without such an affiliation.

As has already been shown, there is a positive association between cohabiting and divorce. Christian churches generally discourage divorce and at least one mainstream church, the Catholic Church, vigorously opposes it. This opposition indirectly impedes cohabiting since people with a church affiliation are less likely to divorce. It follows that because divorced people have higher rates of cohabitation the lower divorce rates of religious people will reduce their cohabitation levels.

Divorce impacts on cohabiting in a further way. The children of divorcees are more likely to cohabit than children from intact families. The argument goes that loss of confidence in the ability of marriages to last encourages those with first-hand experience of marital breakdown to check out the suitability of a partner or partnership before entering into a life-long commitment (Bumpass, 1990).

It is reasonable to argue that the opposition of churches to divorce and their emphasis on marital chastity and life-time commitment to a partner will encourage those with a church affiliation to reject the 'try before you buy' approach to marital commitment that prompts much cohabitation. It is also likely, because of the beliefs and attitudes put forward by many Christian churches, that affiliates will feel more obliged than those without an affiliation to have children, a behaviour which is more strongly associated with marriage than with cohabiting. In summary, it is plausible to argue that, for the kinds of reasons that have just been reviewed, religious affiliates are less likely to cohabit than those without such an affiliation.

The 2001 Census was not designed to collect data on religious behaviour --such as frequency of church attendance. However, as with previous censuses, information was gathered on religious affiliation from those prepared to provide it. The census reveals, as predicted, a marked association between religious affiliation and the occurrence of cohabiting relationships. Specifically, among people in a couple relationship, males and females with no religious affiliation were more than twice as likely to cohabit as those with a religious affiliation (23 percent compared with 10 percent; see Table 4).

A larger proportion of affiliates of the Anglican Church than affiliates of any other Christian denomination are cohabiters (Table 4). Proportionate to their numbers, affiliates of the Catholic Church comprise the second largest group of cohabiters, while affiliates of the Pentecostal Church, other evangelical Protestant churches, the Orthodox churches, and sects such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons, are at the other end of the spectrum. Only a small percentage of the affiliates of each of the second set of religious organizations indicated that they were cohabiting. The disparity in cohabiting rates among Christian denominations is, in part, a function of numerical size: the Catholic and Anglican Churches are the two largest denominations in Australia. As Carmichael and Mason (1999) observed in their discussion of the 1991 Census findings, many of the men and women reporting an affiliation with large mainstream denominations are in reality lapsed adherents over whose behaviour the churches probably exercise little, if any, influence. By contrast, a fundamentalist group, such as the Pentecostalists (that has a low rate of cohabiting among its members), is likely to have a much smaller proportion of nominal adherents than, say, either the Anglican or Catholic Churches.

There are additional factors that influence cohabiting rates among various Christian denominations. The first of these is the level of tension existing between each denomination and/or individual congregation and the wider society. '[T]ension refers to the degree of distinctiveness, separation, and antagonism between a religious group and the "outside world"' (Stark and Finke, 2000: 143). Stark and Finke divide most Christian Churches and sects into those standing in a relationship of low tension with their social environment and those in a relationship of high tension. In a relationship of low tension, the attitudes and behaviour exhibited by active members often do not differ markedly from those prevailing among non-church members of the society. Low-tension religious groups are more inclusive, less judgemental and more 'this worldly' than 'other worldly'. Most congregations of most of the larger Australian denominations would fall into the low-tension group category. By contrast, those groups standing in a relation of high tension often differ markedly in their behaviour and values from most members of the society. They may, in fact, stand in an antagonistic relationship to their society. They are more demanding of members. Membership costs not only in terms of money but also in terms of time and intrusion on the personal lives of adherents. High-tension groups include most fundamentalist/evangelical churches, such as the Pentecostalists, and sects such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons.

One would expect higher rates of cohabiting among members of low-tension than of high-tension religious groups. The latter are more likely to reject the modern view that people's sexual behaviour is their private business and argue that all aspects of the behaviour of their members is subject to the oversight of the church. They are more likely to demand that members conform to their sexual standards and to sanction informally as well as formally those who break them. Evelyn Lehrer (2000) reports that in the USA, the Mormons and fundamentalist Protestant Churches (Pentecostalist Churches fall into the latter category) have the lowest approval rating of pre-marital sex.

The high degree of conformity with sexual mores in high-tension churches is facilitated by the high degree of social solidarity they exhibit. This stems from participation by most members in a busy programme of church activities designed to ensure that participants meet most of their social and emotional as well as spiritual needs through their church and through association with 'like-minded people'. These activities produce a close-knit network of social ties that helps ensure conformity by members to norms that distinguish the group from its social environment, including those opposing cohabiting (Stark and Finke, 2000).

The numerically largest group among the orthodox denominations consists of affiliates of the Greek Orthodox Church. The small proportion of Orthodox respondents acknowledging they are cohabiting is likely to be, in part, due to the high store placed on female chastity in the Greek community (Carmichael and Mason, 1999; Tsolidis, 1995). It may also be due to a higher degree of social solidarity occurring in this religious group than occurs typically in Australian mainstream churches. Among members of the Greek Orthodox Churches, religious ties are reinforced by purportedly close-knit ethnic ties (Bottomley, 1979). Informal as well as formal methods of social control are much easier to exercise in close-knit than loose-knit groups and organizations (Dempsey, 1990).

People of the Islamic faith reported well below average levels of cohabitation (3.8 percent for men and 2.8 percent for women). Muslims also put a strong emphasis on female chastity and fiercely oppose sex outside of formal marriage for men as well as women. Muslims also participate in fairly close-knit ethnic sub-communities. In describing the forces shaping the lives of Lebanese Muslim families in Australia, Michael Humphrey observes: 'The ideologies of family collectivism and Islamic Law constructed around reputation and religious duty tend to reinforce an essentially family-centred morality and authority' (1984: 184-5). Humphrey goes on to stress that these forces encourage a traditional gender-based division of roles, and they make men responsible morally and socially for the family's women. Family disputes are mainly about women's modesty, marriage and divorce.

To sum up this section: religious affiliation--or lack of it--has been shown to bear substantially on the likelihood of cohabiting. Cohabiting behaviour is also more likely to occur among members of religious groups exhibiting a low degree of tension with their social environment, such as the larger mainstream churches, than those exhibiting a high degree of tension such as many evangelical churches and sects. The conformity of members to the norms precluding sexual activity outside of marriage is encouraged by the tight-knit character of social ties emanating from religious ties being reinforced by ethnic ties.

Indigenous and ethnic background.

Ethnicity has been shown to be closely associated with rates of cohabiting (Carmichael and Mason, 1999; Seltzer, 2000). In the present context the data collected for the census on birthplace of Australian residents provide a useful proxy for ethnicity. The data also facilitate a comparison between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. The latest census shows--as did the 1996 Census--that cohabiting is three times more common among indigenous than non-indigenous Australians (35.8 percent compared to 11.7 percent).

Judith Seltzer (2000) observes that it is a sociological truism that the meaning of cohabiting depends on its social context. The present high rate of cohabiting among indigenous Australians is, in part, a function of a long tradition of social acceptance of consensual partnering by Aborigines. That is only part of the story, however. The other part of the story originates from the impoverished economic circumstances of most Aborigines. There is a well-established link in the literature between economic hardship and the occurrence of cohabitation rather than marriage (Bachrach et al., 2000). So, even if marriage is an attractive option to many Aborigines, they will cohabit because they cannot afford to marry (Carmichael and Mason, 1999).

Among non-indigenous Australians cohabiting rates vary greatly with ethnic background (Table 5). For example, New Zealanders living in Australia are almost twice as likely to cohabit as people of Australian birth (23 percent compared to 14 percent). New Zealand's high rate of cohabiting is due principally to two factors (Carmichael and Mason, 1999). First, it is elevated by the substantial presence of Maoris among New Zealand immigrants living in this country. Registered marriage is as culturally alien to Maoris as it is to Australian Aborigines. However, because Maoris form a much larger proportion of their country's population than do Aborigines, the indigenous factor affects New Zealand's cohabiting rate to a greater degree than it does Australia's. The second factor contributing to the higher rate of cohabiting among New Zealanders living in Australia is their higher rates of separation and divorce (ABS, 2002). As mentioned earlier, divorcees are more likely to cohabit than never-married people. In their commentary on the findings on this issue from the 1991 ABS Census Carmichael and Mason suggest that the New Zealander cohabiting rate was inflated by the presence of a substantial number of young people who were on working holidays. These people were inclined to cohabit because they were away from the influence of family and were probably intent on avoiding marriage during the period of their stay (Carmichael and Mason, 1999). People of Australian birth have the second highest cohabitation rate (Table 5). Their rate is slightly higher than that of people born in the UK, Ireland and North America. People born in Southern Europe (Greece and Italy), and the Middle East and North African societies (principally Lebanon and Turkey) exhibit the lowest rates of cohabiting. Some Asian groups, especially people born in China, also exhibit low rates of cohabitation.

As noted earlier, a low rate of cohabitation can be an expression of cultural values that perceive female pre-marital chastity as essential to maintaining family honour. Georgina Tsolidis (1995) reports that although the emphasis on virginity is waning among Greeks living in Australia, Greek women still have more conservative sexual views than women of Australian descent. The lower rate of cohabiting among people of Greek, Italian and Middle Eastern/North African birth may be partly a function of higher levels of religious affiliation among members of these communities than exists among people of Australian birth. Specifically, according to the 2001 Census, less than 3 percent of people born in Greece, Italy and Middle Eastern/North African countries, compared to 16 percent of Australian and 26 percent of New Zealand-born people, do not declare a religious affiliation.

Early marriage is a further factor reducing the likelihood of cohabitation. People born in the Middle East or North Africa (mainly Lebanese and Turkish peoples) marry earlier than those born in Australia. More specifically, among people aged 20-24 years who are in a union, those born in the Middle East or North Africa are three times more likely to be married than Australian-born people. This ethnic pattern persists among those people aged in their mid- to late 20s who are in a union. For example, the proportion of people of Lebanese or Turkish origins who are married is 50 percent greater than that of people born in Australia (Table 7).

We turn now to the issue of the low rate of cohabiting among those born in Asia. This low rate is probably not produced by religious beliefs or practice--at least for those from China and the more developed Asian nations. This is because the proportion of people from China and countries such as Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore with no religious affiliation is much higher than for those with a Southern European or Middle Eastern/North African background (Table 6). In particular, just under half the people born in China report that they have no religion. However, only 3 percent of females and 4 percent of males cohabit. The lower rate of cohabiting among many people with an Asian background appears to be linked to a strong cultural emphasis on achieving tertiary educational qualifications (Carmichael and Mason, 1999). This emphasis affects the behaviour of both Asian families who have emigrated to Australia and the substantial number of young adults of Asian birth who have come to this country for the express purpose of enrolling in an educational institution. Carmichael and Mason assert that the strong cultural expectation that young people will give overwhelming priority to their studies impedes them cohabiting.

Second-generation immigrants

We have established that cohabiting is much less common among first-generation immigrants of Southern European and Middle Eastern/North African background than it is among Australians. The data from the 1991 Census showed that the likelihood of cohabiting, however, increases for Australian-born children of immigrants from the above geographical areas: that is countries such as Italy, Greece, Lebanon, Macedonia and Turkey (Table 8). As comparable data were not collected during the course of the 2001 Census we are going to make use of data from the 1 percent sample file of the 1996 Census to show the impact of generational position and inter-ethnic marriages on cohabiting rates.

Australian-born children of immigrant parents from Southern Europe, the Middle East or North Africa, are roughly two to three times more likely to cohabit than children born in their parents' country of origin (Table 8). When an immigrant parent with a cultural background that opposes cohabiting marries outside his or her ethnic group, the likelihood of their offspring cohabiting increases to roughly the same level as for young people both of whose parents were born in Australia. For example, the proportion of unions of Australian-born women who are in cohabiting relationships is 11.8 percent when both their parents were born in Australia and is 11.5 percent where just one parent was born in a Southern European country. However, Australian-born women whose parents were both born in Southern Europe have a cohabitation rate of just 5.5 percent. It seems that when one parent marries outside their ethnic group the cultural norms and informal mechanisms of social control of that group are sufficiently eroded to allow a comparable level of cohabiting to that of people who are at least third-generation Australians (Carmichael and Mason, 1999).

Several factors that encourage the shift away from the constraining influence of the ethnic group require emphasis. With the passage of time there is a decline in adherence, especially among younger people, to the traditional cultural values of their ethnic groups. The influence of religious affiliations also declines. These developments are accompanied by the growing acceptance by younger members of immigrant families of the ideology of individualism that is so prevalent in Australian society. For example, in her study of the Italian Australian family, Ellie Vasta reports that the Catholic Church has less influence over second-generation Italians than it does over first-generation members. She also reports that changes in the economic and social position of women in Australian society have led to substantial changes in the Italian family itself. For first-generation Italians, the interests (economic and social) of the family unit take precedence. Now, for subsequent generations, the interests of the family are subordinated to the interests of the individual. Vasta observes that in the past: 'Parents "kept a tighter rein" on their children and families often socialized together. Nowadays, children go out and organize their own entertainment, socializing far less with their parents than did the youth of the earlier immigration period' (1995: 156). These observations are corroborated by the findings from Loretta Baldassar's (1999) study of sexuality among Italo-Australian youth in Perth. The 'moral community' produced by the network among young Australians of Italian background challenges 'the traditional model of female honour' (1999: 1).

Recent changes occurring in the culture and behaviour of Australian Greeks have also encouraged cohabiting among members of this ethnic group. Tsolidis reports that a pattern of out-marriage is growing, and commitment to pre-marital virginity is waning. She acknowledges that cohabiting prior to marriage is being 'increasingly tolerated' (1995: 137).

The observations of Tsolidis, Vasta and Baldassar help explain why the cohabiting rates of young people of Southern European background are at least double the average for Southern Europeans in their totality, and why those from families where one parent has married outside their ethnic group are still higher.

Summary and conclusion

In this article we have drawn attention to the rapid growth in cohabiting, especially during the last 30 years. Our main purpose has been to try and establish the association between cohabiting, age, gender, religion and ethnicity. It is argued that the growth in cohabiting in recent decades is closely linked to a variety of structural, technological and cultural developments. These include the declining influence of organized religion, growth in individualism, employment growth for women, and technological developments that give women control over their reproductive processes and enable the separation of sex and reproduction.

We believe that articulating the demographic factors that are associated with changes in cohabiting is a prerequisite to explicating a number of marital and familial processes and structures. These include comprehending why cohabiting relationships are less stable than marriages, and what contribution, if any, cohabiting makes to falling fertility rates.

The latest census results demonstrate the steady growth in cohabitation since the 1991 Census. They show that the rates of cohabitation have increased across the board. There are increases in cohabitation among both younger and older age groups, and in most religious and ethnic groups. While the rates of cohabitation have increased in most groups over the last decade, the patterns of cohabitation have remained stable. The relationship between cohabitation and age, gender, ethnicity and religion have remained largely unchanged.

In particular, the analysis of the 2001 Census confirms the findings of the 1991 ABS Census in several important respects.

* Cohabiting is more common among the young than the middle-aged or older members of the community.

* At any stage in the life cycle beyond the teen years, a larger proportion of divorcees than of never-married people cohabit.

* Cohabiters are much less likely than other people to have a religious affiliation.

* Cohabiting is less common among affiliates of Islam, Orthodox and fundamentalist Christian Churches, such as the Pentecostalists, and sects, such as the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses, than it is among those people nominating affiliation with mainstream churches including Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians and the Uniting Church.

* Men and women born in Southern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and certain Asian societies, including China, are far less likely to cohabit than people of Australian birth. Among members of most of these ethnic groups the cohabiting rates of younger people are moving in the direction of those of Australians who have been residing here for at least three generations.

* The lower rates of cohabiting among people of non-Anglo background appear to be linked to such factors as higher levels of religious affiliation, a strong emphasis on female virginity, less emphasis on individual freedom, more emphasis on group obligations and, among Asians, pressure to put achieving educational goals before everything else.

As Larry Bumpass (1990) stresses, the processes we are considering are far from new, very complex and far from having run their course. Consequently, any analysis is a work in progress and ultimately partial and incomplete. There are far too many unknown variables operating to ever hope for a fuller understanding at this point in time.

An analysis relying principally--as this one does--on socio-demographic indices provides useful but limited insight into the phenomenon of cohabiting, and the structural and cultural factors affecting it. Most importantly, it precludes any exploration of the meaning of cohabiting for participants. We can learn a good deal from qualitative research in this area. However, it is our belief that our most urgent need is for research based on representative samples, that explores the expectations that people hold of cohabiting as opposed to marriage, and their perceptions of social and cultural influences shaping their own attitudes, values and behaviour.
Table 1: Percent who have ever cohabited by age group (of those who
have ever been partnered), 2001

     15-19  20-24  25-34  35-44  45-54  55-64  65-74  75+   Total
     %      %      %      %      %      %      %      %     %

Yes  90.3   68.0   38.7   26.0   15.2    8.1    4.0    1.5  20.3
No    9.7   32.0   61.3   74.1   84.8   91.9   96.0   98.5  79.7

N    31     272    1921   2767   2315   1634   1179   805   10,924

Source: HILDA (2001) wave 1. See FaCS (2002).

Table 2: Percent of those in a union who are cohabiting by
age and gender, 2001

            Female   Male
Age group   %        %

15-19         81.8   83.2
20-24         56.8   66.8
25-29         29.8   37.8
30-34         16.5   20.8
35-39         11.4   13.5
40-44          9.0   10.2
45-49          7.7    8.4
50-54          6.1    6.9
55-59          4.3    5.3
60+            1.8    2.3

Source: 2001 Census of Population and Housing, customized data
cube. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2003).

Table 3: Percent of each marital status who are cohabiting, by age and
gender, 2001

        Never married  Widowed  Divorced  Separated


20-24   10.1            2.3     17.2       6.4
25-29   22.9            9.3     29.8      10.7
30-34   26.6           11.6     33.6      12.5
35-39   24.8           15.2     31.7      13.3
40-44   21.4           14.7     29.2      13.5
45-49   17.9           13.9     27.2      14.1
50-54   12.9           12.6     26.2      13.8
55-59    8.7           10.7     23.1      11.6
60+      4.3            2.7     13.0       6.6


15-19    2.7            1.2      8.8       2.9
20-24   16.6            5.5     23.2       8.8
25-29   28.5            9.5     30.4      10.4
30-34   29.4           13.6     30.6      10.6
35-39   27.0           13.0     26.8      10.2
40-44   22.5           12.0     23.6      10.0
45-49   17.6           10.8     21.9      10.4
50-54   11.8            8.2     18.8       8.6
55-59    7.7            5.3     14.0       6.1
60+      2.7            0.8      5.5       2.9

Source: 2001 Census of Population and Housing, customized data cube.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (2003).

Table 4: Percent of those in a union who are cohabiting, by
religion, 2001

                            Female   Male
                            %        %

Buddhism                     8.5      9.0
Anglican                    11.2     11.9
Baptist                      6.1      6.3
Catholic                    10.6     10.4
Lutheran                     9.1     10.6
Orthodox                     3.5      2.9
Presbyterian                 8.9      9.7
Uniting Church               7.3      8.3
Pentecostal                  5.6      6.5
Islam                        3.3      2.5
Fundamentalist Protestant    5.9      6.6
Sect                         4.1      4.4
Other Christian              6.8      7.1
Other religion               7.7      9.0
No religion                 21.9     24.1

Source: 2001 Census of Population and Housing, customized data
cube. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2003).

Table 5: Percent of those in a union who are cohabiting, by
selected country of birth, 2001

                               Male   Female
                               %      %

Australia                      13.9   13.8
UK/Ireland                     10.2    9.8
New Zealand                    22.8   22.7
North and West Europe           8.8    9.8
East Europe and former USSR     5.2    6.4
Southern Europe                 2.8    2.2
Other South-east Europe         3.5    3.0
Middle East and North Africa    2.7    1.6
China                           3.2    4.2
Other Asia                      5.0    6.0
North American                 12.5   13.5

Source: 2001 Census of Population and Housing, customized data
cube. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2003).

Table 6: Percent of those indicating no religion, by selected
country of birth, 2001

                                 Per cent

Australia                          15.5
New Zealand                        26.0
UK                                 18.1
Ireland                             7.9
North and West Europe              19.7
Southern Europe                     2.5
Other South-east Europe             4.3
Eastern Europe and former USSR     10.7
Middle East and North Africa        2.8
China                              48.7
Asia--developed countries (a)      24.8

Source: 2001 Census of Population and Housing, customized data
cube. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2003).

Note: (a) Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Table 7: Percent of those in a union who are cohabiting and married,
by selected country of birth for those aged 20-29, 2001

                             New        West      Southern
                 Australia   Zealand    Europe    Europe

Age group 20-24
Married          36.5        27.9       35.3      80.1
Cohabiting       63.5        72.1       64.7      19.9

Age group 25-29
Married          65.2        50.4       57.1      87.4
Cohabiting       34.8        49.6       42.9      12.6

                 Eastern     Middle
                 Europe      East
                 and         and
                 Former      North      UK/
                 USSR        Africa     Ireland

Age group 20-24
Married          56.7        95.2       31.9
Cohabiting       43.3         4.8       68.1

Age group 25-29
Married          75.5        96.1       55.8
Cohabiting       24.5         3.9       44.2

Source: 2001 Census of Population and Housing, special matrix table,
Australian Bureau of Statistics (2003).

Table 8: Percent of those in a union who are cohabiting, by country of
birth of respondent and parents, by gender, 1996

Respondent                                                      West
born in           Australia   UK        Australia   Australia   Europe

Parents born in   Both in     Both      Both        One UK,     Both
                  Australia   UK        UK          one         North
                                                    Australia   and
% cohabiting      %           %         %           %           %
Male              11.2        8.3       11.8        11.4        7.3
Female            10.8        8.3       12.5        11.2        6.7

Respondent                                Southern
born in           Australia   Australia   Europe      Australia

Parents born in   Both        One         Both        Both
                  North       North       Southern    Southern
                  and         and         Europe      Europe
                  West        West
                  Europe      Europe,
% cohabiting      %           %           %           %
Male              14.1        11.4        2.3         8.6
Female            17.3        11.2        1.8         5.5

Respondent                                North
born in           Australia   Africa      Australia   Australia

Parents born in   One         Both        Both        One
                  South       Middle      Middle      Middle
                  Europe,     East,       East,       East,
                  one         North       North       North
                  Australia   Africa      Africa      Africa,
% cohabiting      %           %           %           %
Male              11.5        2.1         5.3         11.4
Female            11.5        0.5         9.8         11.3

Source: ABS 1996 Census, 1 percent Household Sample Confidentialized
Unit Record File.

Note: Based on 15+ population


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Ken Dempsey and David de Vaus

School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University

Biographical notes

Ken Dempsey is an Honorary Research Fellow and former Reader in Sociology at La Trobe University, Victoria. His books include Smalltown and Inequalities in Marriage: Australia and Beyond, both published by Oxford University Press.

David de Vaus is Professor of Sociology and Head of the School of Social Sciences at La Trobe University. He has researched widely on family issues and his books include Surveys in Social Research, Letting Go: Relationships between Adults and their Parents and Diversity and Change in Australian Families. Address: Sociology Program, School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University Victoria, 3086 Australia. [email]
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Author:Dempsey, Ken; de Vaus, David
Publication:Journal of Sociology
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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