Do we need policies for non-families as well as families?

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Recently released census data shows a continuing trend of fewer people married, and more couples without children. Are Australia and Melbourne ready for this change?

Do we need non-family policies as well as family policies?

Consider this: According to the Department of Planning and Community Development, by 2025 up to 51% of Melbourne households will be ‘no child households’. That is pre-child, post-child or no intention of having children.

We already see that the fastest growing segment of the housing market is the single person household, with predictions from DPCD of single person households reaching 44% by 2035.
This is a massive shift in our community that government and planners are not sufficiently alert to or ready for. We hear a lot from our political leaders about families, but if 51% of our population by 2025 will be living in a non-family set up, shouldn’t we hear about non family policies as well?

Think through some of the ramifications in housing, social cohesion and fiscal policy.
Let’s take housing. According to the Grattan Institute 84% of Melbourne’s housing stock is made up of detached or semi-detached family homes. We can see a massive disconnect if by 2025 only 49% of our population will be in family units but 84% of the housing stock is aimed at them. There will be glut of family homes and a shortage of non-family medium and higher density living.

As the average number of people per household shrinks we will need more residences for the same amount of population. If we do not radically change the design of our residences then Melbourne will see a massive spread into greenfields areas causing a huge decrease in Melbourne’s density.

Melbourne has seen a huge drop in its density from 20.3 people per hectare in 1960 to around 14.9 people per hectare today partly because the trend of shrinking family sizes has been going on since the 1960s. This decreasing density is eating up farmland on the urban fringe and putting huge strain on infrastructure spending as the cost per person per kilometer of infrastructure sky rockets.

This decreasing density caused by demographic change will continue even if the population remained exactly the same – let alone if we continue to grow our population at our 150 year average of 1.4% per annum.

If by 2035 this demographic change sees the predicted 44% of our population as single person households, imagine how catastrophic this problem will be if we do not build more higher density single person dwellings? We must urgently start the change in our housing mix regardless of population growth, because even a stable population would see this trend.
Let’s think also of some social issues that may arise from this trend.

As generation Y continue to grow and have a higher proportion of their human interaction through remote or virtual means such as Skype, Facebook and whatever social networks that will come next, will our society have a decreased ability to deal with each other face to face? In this age, how many of the residents of single person households will have little human interaction?

We know proportionally virtual interaction is rising at the expense of actual interaction. Some of this is good in maintaining international or interstate friendships, but how will this evolve in their future? How will it impact on our society and urban villages?

As single person households age and get ill, will we see more horror stories of people falling ill or dying at home and remaining undiscovered for days or weeks as ‘friends’ wonder why they have not been online?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that as a community we have not been ‘asking’ these questions enough. As our demography changes, how do we as a society meet the change?

Let’s look at fiscal transfers. We have only just started to hear challenges to ‘baby bonuses’ family subsidies and the like. When will people start to ask, as they surely will, for ‘non family’ bonuses, payments or subsidies, or start to oppose family payments on the grounds that they are unjust?

Will we see arguments put that non family tax payers already subsidies family units enough through tax funded education which non families receive no direct benefit from?
Will non family units ask for additional age care support from government as they have no families to look after them in old age? Is there an argument that ‘I paid for your child’s education through my tax, now you pay for my age care through your tax’?

Again, I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do know that we must start asking these questions. 2011 was the first year that more baby-boomers left the job market than Gen Y entered the job market. It was the first year that our native workforce shrank and hence was the first year that the ‘future ageing population problem’ became the ‘present aging population problem.

With decreasing family sizes, growing numbers of childless households and growing numbers of single person households, the enormous challenges of an aging and changing population are only just starting and we are just not discussing this enough.

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