The changing face of the average Aussie

Composite image showing, clockwise from top left: Cricketer Shane Warne playing in a test match for Australia, two Australian rugby union fans dressed in green and yellow wigs, Australian footballer Tim Cahill and three Asian women wearing Australian-flag face paint at a citizenship ceremony during the 2013 Australian Open tennis tournament

Australia's population surpassed 23 million on Tuesday. And as the country's numbers change, so does its image - you can forget Crocodile Dundee, for a start.

The national stereotype has it that no Australian would ever look upon themselves as "average".

Instead, outsiders tend to think of "quintessential Aussies" - ruggedly individualist types with a bawdy sense of humour and a self-confidence bordering on the downright cocky.

But after mulling over the most up-to-date census data, the country's Bureau of Statistics has come up with its own stereotype-busting definition of the so-called average Aussie.

Suffice to say, we are not dealing with some ocker on the veranda of an outback watering hole, raising a schooner of ice-cold beer with one hand and swatting away flies with the other. Nor has the Australian Bureau of Statistics plucked a character from the teenage cast of an afternoon "soap", or some blonde Adonis from the surf at Bondi.

No, the "average Australian" is evidently a 37-year-old woman, married with two children, who lives in a three-bedroom house in a suburb of one of Australia's capital cities. Its average Australian is a wholly different character from the imagined Australian.

Any attempt to define a nation by one person is bound to be met by scepticism. But in a country where the prime minister, the governor-general and the richest person - the mining magnate, Gina Rinehart - are all women, the latest data confirms what demographers have long known: Australia is becoming a more female country.

Australia's powerful women

Composite image featuring, from left: Julia Gillard, Gina Rinehart and Quentin Bryce
  • Prime Minister Julia Gillard: Born Barry, Wales, 1961. Raised in Adelaide, became citizen in 1974. Elected to federal seat for Labor in 1998. Education and employment minister before ousting Kevin Rudd as leader
  • Mining magnate Gina Rinehart: Born Perth, 1954. Daughter of Lang Hancock, iron ore millionaire. Took over company in 1992. Named world's richest woman in 2012 survey. Has stake in Channel Ten and Fairfax Media
  • Governor-General Quentin Bryce: Born Brisbane, 1942. Worked as academic and human rights lawyer. Was governor of Queensland before becoming first woman governor-general in 2008

In the years after British settlement in 1788, the sex ratio was six men to one woman because so many convicts and their guards were male.

The gold rush in the late 19th Century maintained this large excess of males, as did the early waves of post-war immigration because of an influx of men from southern Europe.

A hundred years ago, the average Australian was a 24-year-old male. Fifty years ago, he was a 29-year-old male. Then, in 1979, women finally overtook men.

Previously in the Magazine

Australian flag billowing in the wind

Because women live longer, that national trend will continue in perpetuity - although, in Western Australia, men still outnumber women as a result of the modern-day gold rush effect of the state's male-dominated mining industry.

The "average Australian" still is born in Australia, as were her parents. But in this polyglot nation, with such a rich multicultural flavour, that is likely to change soon. More than a quarter of Australians are already born overseas - 26% - and only 54% have parents who were both born within these shores.

The changing face of the Australian cricket team illustrates some of the demographic shifts. Blonde and gelled, its captain and vice-captain on the recent tour of India, Michael Clarke and Shane Watson, look like they have stepped, bat aloft, from central casting.

But the next generation of stars is starting to look more like modern Australia. Consider the promising all-rounder, Moises Henriques, who was born in Lisbon, Portugal, or Usman Khawaja, the talented - if underperforming - batsman, who hails from Islamabad.

The notion that cricket, one of the few sports which arouses the same level of passion throughout the land, should be regarded as the average Australian sport is also being challenged. In terms of ethnicity, football - or soccer as it is known in Australia - has arguably become the country's most representative sport.

The A-League can boast players from 56 ancestries. The Socceroos, the national team, is populated by players with names like Schwarzer, Aloisi, Ognenovski, Bresciano. Its star player, Tim Cahill, was born in Sydney of a Samoan mother and an English father of Irish descent. In a settler nation, it is the migrant game.

Aussie blokes: the next generation

Composite image featuring, from left: Moises Henriques, Bernard Tomic, Usman Khawaja and Jason Day
  • Moises Henriques: Cricket all-rounder, born Portugal. Scored 156 runs and took two wickets in three matches after making test debut in India this year
  • Bernard Tomic: Tennis player, born Germany. Ranked 47 in world, having become youngest Wimbledon quarter-finalist since Boris Becker in 2011
  • Usman Khawaja: Cricket batsman, born Pakistan. Form with Queensland prompted selectors to make him the first Muslim to play for Australia
  • Jason Day: Golfer, born Queensland, with Filipino mother. Ranked 26 in world and finished third behind compatriot Adam Scott in 2013 US Masters

Twenty-five years ago, football's "ethnic" image limited its growth and penetration. Now, its ethnic diversity is seen as a unique selling point, and one of the reasons why the A-League is set to return to free-to-air television after years of being shown mainly on cable. Administrators market it as "the face of Australia".

In other sports, too, new Australians are rising to the top. The golfer Adam Scott, who this month became the first Australian ever to win the US Masters and don the famous green blazer, may fit the standard profile of the successful Aussie sports star. But had things turned out differently on the back nine at Augusta, we could just as easily have been talking about the Australian who finished third, Jason Day, whose father is an Irish Australian and whose mother is Filipino.

The view from Down Under

A man reading a newspaper in Melbourne

The up-and-coming tennis star Bernard Tomic was born in Germany, of Bosnian and Croatian parents. In a country searching for its next male grand slam winner, it would be tempting to call him "the great white hope" but that very phrase is becoming increasingly redundant across Australian sport.

This, after all, is a country where one in five people - 19% - speak a language other than English in their home. Of these, the most common is Mandarin, yet another reminder of how China specifically, and immigration more generally, is continually changing the character of Australia.

The "average Aussie" is Catholic rather than Anglican, and one of the main reasons why is because of new arrivals from the Philippines and Vietnam. They have added to the Irish and Mediterranean immigrants who traditionally have looked to Rome for their spiritual leadership.

Also noticeable is the strong growth of non-Christian groups, which again is explained mainly by immigration. Of the non-Christian religions, the biggest is Buddhism (2.5% of the population), Islam (2.2%) and Hinduism (1.3%). Hinduism is witnessing the biggest growth, with its numbers almost doubling between 2006 and 2011, from 148,130 to 275,534 followers.

This new definition of the average Australian is especially timely, according to Dr Rebecca Huntley of Ipsos Mackay research, because there is a growing annoyance that Australia and its people are being misrepresented around the world.

"Twenty years ago it was the cultural elites who used to cringe at the stereotypical Paul Hogan, Steve Irwin and Shane Warne view of Australia. Now that's part of a much broader discussion. People are very aware of what the world imagines Australia to be, and what we really are. We want our national profile to reflect our lived experience."

Prawn on a barbecue "Throw another shrimp on the barbie" was a 1980s tourism slogan

Australians, she says, are becoming more resentful of tourism adverts that peddle in traditional stereotypes and typecast Australians. Tourism Australian does so because the cliches sell, and attempts to rebrand the country have not always been successful.

Recent research also shows that people have a problem with Julia Gillard's nasal accent, because of how it sounds in international forums. "The Kath and Kim voice feeds this idea that we're a nation of Shane Warnes," says Huntley.

"They're open to a more complex and sophisticated view of what Australia is," she says - a country where people are early adopters of technology, enjoy a broad menu of international food and have a high appetite for global news.

There is a growing realisation, as well, that the country's unbroken 21-year run of economic growth sets it apart. The average Australian is becoming globally exceptional.

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