The release of the 2011 Census is an exciting time for business as well as for demographers.
The first of three main tranches of census data was released in late June. A second, more substantial release occurred in July. The final detailed tables will be released in October. Early next year will see the journey-to-work data that is so beloved of traffic engineers released.
Typically, individual censuses do not include revelatory new trends; rather they tend to confirm trends already known and well underway.
This is not to say that the census is not important as both a social document and as a business tool. It’s all a question of interpretation. I find that, rather than trying to cover everything, it is far better to focus on a few areas such as, for example, housing and household living arrangements.
The 2011 Census showed that the proportion of separate houses on separate blocks of land dropped from 74.8 percent of all dwellings in 2001 to 73.8 percent a decade later. Over this same period the proportion of dwellings defined as semi-detached jumped from 9.0 percent to 9.9 percent and the proportion of apartments or flats increased from 13.5 percent to 14.6 percent. Clearly the Australian housing market is shifting from the traditional ideal of a separate house on a separate block of land to embrace new lifestyle options involving an apartment or similar form of dwelling.
To some extent this is linked to changes in household structure – family households dropped from 72.1 percent of all households in 2001 to 71.5 percent a decade later.
The housing market is extraordinarily impacted by the slightest movement in these national proportions – a one percentage point movement in the proportion of dwellings involves almost 100,000 dwellings. A social trend away from families towards singles and couples, for example, translates into a fundamental shift in the demand for kinds of housing.
And that is precisely what has been in train for more or less a generation. At the end of the day it is the narrative by which Australian lives are lived that is on the move. Astute businesses understand these trends and alter housing configurations to reflect evolving values and lifestyles.
The same holds true for ethnicity trends. It is only at the census that demographers get a real handle on which tribes are growing and at what rate. This is important in the housing sphere because ethnicity shapes housing demand.
The top three ethnicities in Australia have not changed in a generation – Australian born, UK born and New Zealand born. At the 2011 census these three ‘tribes’ accounted for more than 76 percent of the Australian population. Broadly, these tribes reflect Anglo values and behaviours that can be expected to translate into consumer and housing preferences.
The next three biggest tribes in Australia are interesting – people born in China, India and Italy. Jointly these groups account for 3.8 percent of the national population, but as these are typically new migrants, they are also forming households and, as such, influence the housing market in a disproportionate way.
The Italian tribe, for example, represents migrants who mostly arrived a generation ago and have well-established houses and households; the Chinese and the Indians on the other hand are the exciting new tribal influences on the Australian housing and consumer markets.
The real business acumen in reading these trends is not so much in building product specifically for the Indian or Chinese markets (although that is part of the opportunity), it is understanding how these influences might shape the broader market.
Migrants have a predisposition to use housing as a way to showcase their success in the new world: an aspirational dwelling is vindication of their decision to relocate to Australia. Aspirational middle class housing on the edges of capital cities by the end of this decade are therefore likely to have distinctive Asian influences: designed to reflect the principles of feng shui; estate names that eschew “Englishness” like “The Buckingham” and that embrace neutral names.
There is probably an argument to say that there should also be research by housing companies on the cultural preferences in housing by New Zealanders and the British as well.
Australia is very much an evolving and shifting market, especially in terms of housing. The 2011 Census and its staged release program confirm two important trends: firstly that this nation is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, a largely Anglo-inspired culture; and, secondly, that housing styles are on the move away from the traditional separate house on a separate block of land.
My recommendation to housing groups is to instruct analysts to not simply look at the big picture when assessing the results of the census, but to also look at the detail and use it to discern the direction and the values of how Australian life in the 21st century is being lived. Align your business with the way Australia is moving and you cannot help but be on track and on trend.
Bernard Salt is a KPMG Partner and an adjunct professor at Curtin University Business School; firstname.lastname@example.org