New Zealand's traditional family of a heterosexual married couple and children is no longer the norm.

Divorce rates, single parenthood and same-sex partnerships have increased. With rising migration, cultures and values are more diverse. Young adults spend longer in education and training and elderly family members live longer.

In 2030 there may be six million of us. We will be clustered in Auckland and worried about a shortage of workers. We haven't planned for this, Professor Paul Spoonley says.

In this extract from his new book, The New New Zealand, he looks at how our family units have changed.

Advertisement

1. Sole Parents and Single-person Households

One structural change particularly noticeable since the first decade of this century, and projected to continue into the future, is the rise of single-person households. In the 2020s single-person households will be New Zealand's most common household type, and the increase in this household type will have been higher than in any other nation in the OECD.

Between 2006 and 2030, New Zealand will experience a percentage increase in single-person households of 71 per cent, beaten only by France and high in comparison to England (the third-highest at 60 per cent), Australia (48 per cent) or the US (35 per cent).

Then there are single-parent households, a form of family household which has grown considerably in number over the last 50 years, and is expected to increase further in the next decade or so. The OECD calculates that New Zealand will see an increase in single-parent households of 29 per cent between 2006 and 2031 — the highest rise in the OECD.

New Zealand has seen a rise of solo-parent households. Photo / 123rf
New Zealand has seen a rise of solo-parent households. Photo / 123rf

Currently, about 30 per cent of all family households in New Zealand are sole-parent families, and this is expected to increase to 40 per cent in the 2030s, compared to the US (27 per cent) or Germany (18 per cent).

Sole-parent families have much lower incomes and so the risk of elevated poverty among sole-parent households is a major equity and policy issue. In 2013, the median household income for a couple with children was $92,000 but for sole parents, it was $33,100.

2. Decline of Marriage

More than three-quarters of couples will live together in some form and then negotiate the nature of their future relationship. Photo / 123rf
More than three-quarters of couples will live together in some form and then negotiate the nature of their future relationship. Photo / 123rf

The formal commitment of marriage has been in decline for the last 50 years, and has been replaced by cohabitation and partnerships. Today, more than three-quarters of couples will live together in some form and then negotiate the nature of their future relationship, which might or might not include marriage.

Advertisement

Although the rate of formal marriage has declined significantly since the 1970s, it has now stabilised, albeit at a much lower rate than historically. In the 1980s, for every 1000 people eligible to marry, just under 30 couples got married each year. By 2015, this had dropped to slightly more than 10 marriages or civil unions.

The age at which people get married has changed, too: it is now in the early 30s for both males and females in New Zealand. Marriage is now delayed by more than a decade compared to 50 years ago.

In reality, the forms of cohabitation range widely, from living together as part of a reconstituted family unit but as an unmarried couple through to shared living circumstances where a number of adults, many of whom might not be related biologically to the children being raised, perform social care and socialisation functions.

3. Delayed First Births

In the 1980s, women aged 25-29 years had the highest birth rate (145 births per 1000 women). In recent years, women aged 30-34 years have had the highest birth rate (121 births per 1000 women.

Currently there are more children born to women over the age of 40 than to teenagers in New Zealand.

Advertisement

As the OECD noted in 2011 in its summary report on changes to families in high-income countries: "Family formation patterns are . . . changing. Increasingly, both men and women want to first establish themselves in the labour market before founding a family. Hence the age of mothers at first childbirth has risen and with it the possibility of having fewer children than previous generations".

Currently, there are more children born to women over the age of 40 than to teenagers in New Zealand. Photo / 123rf
Currently, there are more children born to women over the age of 40 than to teenagers in New Zealand. Photo / 123rf

Female workforce participation rates and educational attainment have both risen steadily since the Second World War, and especially in the last 30 years.

The importance of women's participation in the labour market and the delay in having children has consequences for things such as the provision of childcare, either paid for privately or by the state (and sometimes by the employer); the role of grandparents in childcare in order to release parents for work; and the role of parents in childcare generally. There are also important drivers of labour demand.

4. Childless Households

The childless family or household has two very different forms. One is a product of ageing and the fact that parents who do have children will live for much longer without those (adult) children being present in their households. This will increase as the impacts of an ageing society become more apparent.

But there is another, very different form.

Advertisement

One of the outcomes of declining fertility rates, and the decision by some not to have children (in addition to those who cannot have children), will be an increase in households without children. Between 2006 and 2031, New Zealand will have undergone one of the highest increases in the OECD in households with childless couples (56 per cent, compared to Australia at 42 per cent or the US at 37 per cent), while the number of couples who do have children will decrease by 12 per cent.

There is an increase of couples without children. Photo / 123rf
There is an increase of couples without children. Photo / 123rf

5. Reconstituted Families and Repartnering

In mid-20th-century New Zealand, divorce was still quite rare in a country where most adults were married. Values changed through the 1970s and 1980s, leading to a relaxing of mores around divorce and a greater number of reconstituted families.

A Christchurch longitudinal study following children born in the 1970s found that while 50 per cent of the children in their study were born into or entered a single-parent family by the age of 16, 71 per cent of these then re-entered a two-parent family within five years.

This research suggests that many people experience reconstituted families but also that there is considerable churn.

One aspect of our marital demography is intriguing: about half of all divorces in New Zealand do not involve children. This is the second-highest number in the OECD. In most countries, the majority of divorces involve children. Why is New Zealand one of the few exceptions?

Advertisement

6. Culturally Diverse Patterns, Values and Structures

The increased levels and diversity of migration, combined with a significant indigenous population, have impacted on the nature of family units in New Zealand in various ways.

The first is that they bring cultural values to the process of social and biological reproduction, ranging from a devout religiosity that impacts on perceptions and practices around family (the Catholicism of Filipinos, for example) to child rearing (the much hyped and possibly stereotypical "tiger mothers" of Asia) or the practice of whāngai among Māori.

For immigrants, familial practices are affected by the challenges of settling in a new country. Much is different and there is a tendency to be cautious and concerned about what is appropriate. There is also a tendency to replicate former practices and values in the new setting; doing things differently would be too challenging. What family functions and practices should be continued?

And what should be altered or dispensed with? These questions might range from what is considered appropriate in terms of disciplining children through to participating in community or sporting functions. But there are interesting possibilities, too, especially between generations (the migrant family member versus those from the same family who are locally born and raised), and in inter-ethnic partnerships, where there is an opportunity to forge new identities and practices — or for tensions to emerge, over child-rearing practices, for example.

7. Non-biological Parenting

Advertisement

Non-biological parenting has become more common in New Zealand — initially with the possibility of divorce or partner break-ups, and the growth of reconstituted families, and more recently with the growth of same-sex relationships, surrogate parenting and transgender involvement in parenting.

Non-biological parenting has become more common in New Zealand. Photo / 123rf
Non-biological parenting has become more common in New Zealand. Photo / 123rf

Even now, though, there are assumptions made around the language of parenting, as Andrew Solomon puts it so eloquently in the Guardian: "New family types have emerged and will continue to change over their life-cycle. These changes will be driven by increased opportunities and greater personal choice, created by greater economic independence. On the downside, the high-performance society is undermined by growing inequalities and social exclusion".

He was writing out of frustration that he and his male partner were required to explain the nature of their relationship to their son, and were always having to contest the binary restrictions implied in the roles of "father" and "mother".

8. Beanpole Families

Beanpole families are "tall and narrow", in that they typically contain several generations, with low numbers in each generation; often all are living in one household. They come about from older family members living with their adult children and grandchildren — perhaps because the older person has been left alone by separation or death, and seeks company, or because the high cost of housing in major centres makes cohabiting a practical financial option.

Beanpole families typically contain several generations in the same household. Photo / 123rf
Beanpole families typically contain several generations in the same household. Photo / 123rf

The prevalence of the beanpole family unit has been increased by what has been called "co-survivorship", or longer years of shared lives over generations. And by Covid-19 as younger New Zealanders return home to live in family homes. The increased longevity of parents and grandparents has increased the years in which members of a family might be part of a family unit, especially as care is required for old or young.

Advertisement

9. Leaving the Nest

One of the changes in the composition of a family household has been the age at which young adults leave home. For the baby boomers, especially with the mass increase in post-secondary study, the pattern was to leave home at age 17 or younger to enter the labour market or attend university or a polytechnic. That pattern began to change in the 1990s, especially as the cost of further education involved a much higher component that was paid for privately: student debt could be managed by living at home while studying.

But there were other factors, such as the cost of renting and living in main centres like Auckland (which has by far the highest number of tertiary students in New Zealand). Further education was also taking longer.

Children are leaving home older. Photo / 123rf
Children are leaving home older. Photo / 123rf

More young people were leaving their family home in their mid- and sometimes even late 20s, before going on to cohabit or get a job or enter the housing market. This scenario is compounded by the so-called "boomerang kids", who left for further study, travel or work, but then would return home to live for short or long periods. This has been compounded by Covid-19.

The scenario, in which parents and adult children cohabit, has become more common in New Zealand, but it has been relatively common in Europe for some time. The transition from dependent child to independent adult is now somewhat confused and confusing: it has been elongated, it is occurring later, and, even then, because of student debt and the cost of housing, financial dependency is often extended, given that adult children are reliant on parents for financial support.

10. Dispersed Families

Advertisement

The dispersed family – families who do not live together in one location for various reasons: work, education, or familial responsibilities, such as care - is not new; it has simply increased in scale and importance.

Professor Paul Spoonley. Photo / Supplied
Professor Paul Spoonley. Photo / Supplied

This phenomenon has grown for a number of reasons. One is the size of the New Zealand diaspora, which is numbered at approximately one million: there are few New Zealanders who do not have family, including immediate family members, living either permanently or temporarily in other countries. The obvious example is Australia, and there has been a significant element of transtasman mobility that is related to family push and pull factors: for example, proximity to Australia-based grandchildren; migration of former partners and/or children post-separation; and the need to live nearby or to look after elderly relatives who live in another country.

A second reason is the increasing transnational linkages of migrant families so that family, business or educational activities are maintained in at least two countries. Korean migrants provide an example of "wild geese" families in which the children and a parent, often a mother, live in New Zealand while the father works in Korea because that is where his business is located.

Subscribe to Premium

Contemporary migrants to New Zealand, who are often well-established financially and in other ways in origin countries, maintain active connections to those countries, which effectively means that the family continues to do many things that operate across borders rather than simply being located in one city or country.

Pasifika migrants have long done the same in order to fulfill familial and cultural obligations in countries of both origin and destination, and to maintain traditional rights.

Another factor is the increasing mobility of those working in particular jobs.

Advertisement

FIFO (fly-in, fly-out) workers are a case in point. Working on an oil rig or in the mines in Western Australia while the rest of the immediate family continues life somewhere in New Zealand means that the worker will be overseas sometimes for a long period, and then use leave to come back to home and family for a while before returning to work.

The New New Zealand by Paul Spoonley.
The New New Zealand by Paul Spoonley.

The New New Zealand
By Paul Spoonley
Massey University Press
$39.99
Out August 20