Australians are about to get a clearer idea of how we are changing as a nation, and how the Covid pandemic changed us, when results from the 2021 census are released.
On Tuesday, the Australian Bureau of Statistics will release the first tranche of data covering topics such as population flows between cities and regional areas, how Australians are housed, the languages we use, Indigenous health and education, employment and unpaid rates of work.
Demographers are eagerly anticipating Tuesday’s release as a snapshot of mid-pandemic Australia.
However they are cautioning that on an initial glance the results will tell two very different stories: on the night the census was taken, 10 August 2021, half the country was in lockdown while other states enjoyed some of the most relaxed rules on internal movement during the pandemic.
What can we expect?
Dr Liz Allen, a demographer at the Australian National University, said there will be historical appeal in the census capturing Australia at such a unique moment.
“This census offers something quite unique in that never before has Australia understood itself in a way that has been highlighted during the Covid pandemic,” she said. The data will show how a major catastrophe impacts the Australian population differently, “especially the way it adversely impacts more people from low socioeconomic backgrounds”.
“What this census enables us to do is bear witness to Covid in a way we haven’t previously been able to, as well as guiding both how we navigate our way out of this Covid limbo and how we can redress inequalities in the long term.”
Allen believes Australia’s good pandemic health outcomes by mid-2021 – with an overall fall in annual deaths – combined with closed borders and a pause on immigration, has had a specific impact on the makeup of Australia.
“Australia will be older, whiter, and smaller than if Covid hadn’t happened,” Allen said. “In an island nation like Australia, which relies on immigration, understanding the true impacts of closing us off from the world will be one of the strong points of the census.
“Already we’re seeing this in real time, with labour shortages given our traditional reliance on foreign and migrant workers. The census data will give us a way to navigate forward.”
The data will also show the extent of the so-called treechanger and seachanger movements – where city dwellers able to work remotely moved to regional areas, changing the local demographic makeup.
Allen is bracing for wildly differing employment statistics between the states, which she hopes will be useful for understanding how social welfare policy can be tweaked to be more effective.
Additionally, the data will provide a glimpse into our preferred working habits.
“As a nation [we] will be able to reflect on the gravity of what we’ve just been through, and the realisation that there were some who experienced Covid far worse than others.
“That comes down not to individual fault, but rather the structures people use to function in society,” Allen said.
Will the data be useful?
Many other countries postponed their census to avoid capturing a nation in lockdown or under heavy pandemic restrictions, out of concern the data would be less useful for planning purposes.
We don’t want to just know ourselves in the good times, we want to know ourselves in the bad times
Dr Liz Allen
Allen disagrees with this view, saying while the 2021 census will still be useful in understanding how Australians have changed with the times, it will also be valuable around the world as a lesson in pandemic management.
“We don’t want to just know ourselves in the good times, we want to know ourselves in the bad times, and with this census we have taken a true snapshot of the enormous ripple effect of Covid both now and into the future.”
She is also confident that issues from the last census – server problems for those completing online – have been addressed, and Australians can be confident in the quality of the data.
Dr Katharine Betts, deputy head of the Australian Population Research Institute and associate professor of sociology at Swinburne University, says some of the most interesting findings will be on how new migrants are faring after arriving in Australia.
“You’d expect the effects of the closed borders to be quite dramatic this census, especially in cities, as Melbourne and Sydney are particular focuses for new migrants.
“But for those who arrived here within the last five years, seeing where they are living, if they’ve got a job and what that job is, tells us a lot.”
But Betts said for demographers researching particular areas or topics, “much more of the fascinating stuff will only become available some months after the first release”. Demographers can request specific data breakdowns from the ABS on categories such as religion and country of birth sorted by smaller areas than what will be available on Tuesday.
Allen also points out that while the 2021 census did ask some new questions, such as on mental health and defence force involvement, many demographers believe it did not ask some key questions, such as on gender identity and sexuality.
“The Australian census has been updated over the years, but the complexity of our lives increases faster than the census can, and there are some significant historical hangovers that mean we don’t capture data on ethnicity.
“We know that same-sex and different family structures are increasing, but the census doesn’t adequately ask about that. We also capture the country of birth, religion and language, but we don’t actually ask about ethnicity.”
Allen said these questions are becoming increasingly important, given rising rates of assimilation, mixing of ethnicities and atheism, meaning some Australians “don’t see themselves represented in a tick box on the census”.