Family is a fundamental concept in our society, but what does it really mean? How do Australians view and value their family relationships? And how do factors such as age, gender, culture, and sexuality influence their perceptions of family?
These are some of the questions that a new research paper from the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) explores. The paper, titled “What is family? Australian views on what makes a family”, is based on the findings of the Families in Australia Survey conducted in late 2021.
The sample group of 4,436 participants was obtained using a convenience sampling approach and relied on an online survey which resulted in some biases. Notably, only 12% of the sample were men, and a large proportion had children or grandchildren. While the survey was not representative of the Australian population, there were sufficient numbers to gain useful insights on the diverse and complex ways that Australians define their family.
For more information on selecting and controlling sample, as well as minimising biases in online surveys, download our free Market Research Playbook.
In this blog post, we will summarise some of the main findings of the paper.
Love is the most important factor in defining family
The paper asked participants to rate how important they considered six characteristics when defining what makes a family: love; unconditional, non-judgemental support; common experiences and activities; shared values, beliefs and traditions; legal ties or obligations; and blood/genetics.
The results showed that love was the most important factor, with 79% of participants rating it as very important. Those with children and/or grandchildren were more likely to rate love as very important compared to those without (80% vs 70%).
For more research on love and specifically how people choose life partners, see our previous studies on love.
Unconditional, non-judgemental support was the second most important factor, with 67% of participants rating it as very important. Women were more likely to rate it as very important compared to men (69% vs 52%).
The other four characteristics were rated as less important, with varying degrees of difference depending on the participants’ demographic characteristics. For instance, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people were more likely to rate legal ties or obligations as important or very important compared to non-Indigenous Australians (48% vs 30%). LGBTQ+ people were more likely to rate blood or genetics as not important at all compared to others (32% vs 17%).
Chosen family and pets are part of the family for many Australians
The paper also asked participants to list who they considered as part of their family, and to indicate whether they lived with them or not. The results showed that Australians have diverse and inclusive views of who belongs to their family, beyond the traditional nuclear or extended family.
For instance, 41% of participants included chosen family or close friends as part of their family. Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people were more likely to do this compared to non-Indigenous Australians (62% vs 42%).
Pets were also part of the family for 52% of participants. LGBTQ+ people were more likely than others to include pets as part of their family (59% vs 50%).
Generational differences exist in how Australians define family
The paper also analysed the differences in how Australians of different generations defined family. The paper used the following generational categories: Interwar (born before 1946), Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964), Generation X (born 1965–1980), Millennials (born 1981–1996), and Generation Z (born 1997–2012).
The results showed that the Interwar generation had the most traditional and conservative views of family, while the younger generations had more diverse and flexible views.
The Interwar generation were more likely to rate blood or genetics (62%) and legal ties or obligations (48%) as important or very important in defining family compared to later generations. They were also less likely to include chosen family, friends or pets as part of their family (48% vs 66%).
Family is a core value and a source of identity, belonging, and wellbeing for many Australians. However, family is not a fixed or static concept, but a dynamic and evolving one that reflects the diversity and complexity of Australian society.
The new research paper from AIFS provides a rich and comprehensive picture of how Australians define their family and who they include in it. The paper reveals that love, support, and shared experiences are the most important characteristics of family, and that chosen family, friends, and pets are part of the family for many Australians.
The paper also shows that there are generational differences in how Australians define family, with the younger generations having more diverse and flexible views than the older generations.
The paper has important implications and recommendations for policy makers, service providers, and researchers who work with families in Australia. It calls for a recognition and respect of the diversity and complexity of family relationships, and a provision of flexible and inclusive services and supports that cater to the needs and preferences of different types of families.
For anyone who is interested in learning more about the meaning and significance of family in Australia, you can access the full paper here.