2016 is Census Year. But why do we bother?

Every five years Australia holds a census of its people and housing and next year it’s our turn again. The five yearly interval was introduced back in 1961 and it has over time become the essential reference point for demographers, economists, researchers, planners, governments and industry.

The last one in 2011 cost $440 million. It’s a small price to pay for such a high quality image of the reality of Australian society. So why are so many keen to ignore it?

Evidence geeks (myself included) love Census data because it’s almost impossible to refute. Myths and theories can whirl around in a drunken dance together with ideology and blind faith, but there’s nothing like a Census to bring them crashing to the floor with a sobering thud. It’s the indisputable authority on our people, housing and habits that make us Australian. On the evening of the 9th August 2016, wherever you are in Australia, as one of 24 million Australians and some 10 million dwellings, you will be counted and your demographic, economic, social, religious, education and transport profiles (to name just a few) will be taken.

And according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics “The 2016 Census will be Australia’s first Census where more than two thirds of Australia’s population (more than 15 million people) are expected to complete the Census online in August 2016. New delivery and collection procedures will make it easier to complete the Census online.” Which is going to be way more fun than an hour of Fruit Ninja, Subway Surfer or killing time on Snapchat.

Some more Census basics from the ABS Website:

“In 2016, the ABS will:

  • Mail 13.5 million letters to households and establishments across Australia
  • Count all of Australia’s 10 million dwellings and 24 million people
  • Employ around 39,000 temporary field staff across a variety of roles, including up to 500 people to process the data
  • Scan paper forms as they arrive using industrial scanners operating 12 hours per day, 5 days per week, over 10 weeks, scanning close to 88 million pages
  • Produce and publish over 3 trillion cells of data as a result of the information collected in the Census.”

The level of detail provided by the census findings allows almost microscopic analysis of populated areas – down to groups of around 400 people (called a Statistical Area 1, or SA1). Combined with powerful GIS data mapping, the results can be displayed in a graphical way that is both intuitive and highly informative.

But despite the best quality of data and the most advanced tools for interpreting and communicating that data, you can almost guarantee that sections of industry, media, think tanks and various lobby groups will either turn blind eyes to the findings, or find ways to contort the findings to suit their various agendas.

Frustratingly, urban myths will persist despite the abundance of fresh, resolute data provided by the Census. Which makes you wonder why we bother with the expense and effort of gathering hard evidence only to find ourselves confounded by public policy which owes more to perception and prejudice.

What are some of the myths that might prevail despite evidence to the contrary? Here are some nominations but we’ll have to wait until 2017 to see for sure:

  • The myth that all the jobs growth, and all the jobs, are in the inner city. The past several Census’ have stubbornly revealed that CBD and inner city shares of metro wide jobs are stuck at around 10% to 15% of the total, depending on the city. City centre jobs are growing, but so are suburban ones – and generally at least as fast if not faster. Some will ignore the relative balance between city centre and suburban market, and by only focusing on changes in the smaller city centre market, make distorted claims that appeal to kindred booster interests. Those claims get repeated without query, and the myths get a new lease of life.
  • The myth that millennials and Gen Y overwhelmingly favour apartment living in the inner city. There has been a very significant increase in the supply of new housing in the form of inner city apartments in the inter census period and there will be even more completed by August 9, 2016. The Census will reveal how much of that stock is occupied and by what types of households, and will prove an interesting reference point in the debate about the type of housing we are building, and for whom.
  • The myth that families have turned away from the traditional suburban home. There have been numerous reports in recent years suggesting that young families have abandoned the ‘dream’ of a detached home with a backyard for the kids. I doubt this is true and suspect the Census might reveal how untrue this is. Sure, if you’re a young single or young couple with few ties and big city careers, the downtown loft is a lifestyle solution. But once children come along, or certainly by the stage they are ready for pre-school, my suspicion is that Census data will show young families still overwhelmingly choose the detached housing form in a suburban location. This is not to suggest there won’t be an increase in families being raised in apartment style living but I can’t see the scale of social change being predicted by some commentators being borne out by the evidence.
  • The myth that the traditional family model is dying. I know it’s de rigueur to talk about the growth of single person households, gay and lesbian couples (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”) increasing divorce rates and so on, but the Census is a reality check on what can become a runaway debate.  Unless I’m terribly mistaken, the idea of mating and producing children hasn’t suddenly gone out of fashion for the overwhelming majority of Australians. Much to the frustration of some social campaigners, I suspect the Census will reveal a stubbornly conservative majority still prevails.
  • The myth that retirees are generally all wealthy boomers with money to burn. I know it’s an appealing thought, but I suspect the income data sets for seniors and retirees will paint a sobering picture of household incomes for this cohort. Assets are another thing of course and the Census doesn’t ask about assets like the value of the family home. But still, it’s cash flow that pays the grocery and other bills and most seniors, I suspect, will be shown to be on lower incomes than we’d like to think.

Why bother with the Census? Some will ignore it and others will twist its findings into all manner of statistical contortions to prove a theory they’ve decided to believe in, no matter what. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s a terrific investment in the truth of what makes us tick. Bring on August 2016!