The changing face of the average Aussie
- 24 April 2013
- From the section Magazine
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.
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.
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.
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 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."
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.