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The 2021 Australian Census will be held on Tuesday, 10th August.
While the Census provides us with a count of people and dwellings, it has other important uses.
These include determining appropriate electoral boundaries and the number of representatives, as well as the allocation of GST funding to the states.
While the 2021 Census is being conducted during a global pandemic, with some parts of Australia in lockdown, the data will still provide a comprehensive picture of the size and characteristics of the population.
It will establish new trends, dispel myths, but also provide insights into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the data will not be released until mid-2022, what can we look forward to?
Working from home
It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in many ways, but how will this be represented in the Census data?
The obvious one is the place of employment, including working from home.
This data is collected by way of the question on the journey to work.
The 2016 Census showed that more than 500,000 people or 4.7% of employed persons were working from home.
More recent data released by the ABS show that although close to half the workforce was working from home in the early days of the pandemic, the proportion has declined over time.
Working from home is also industry and occupation-specific, as not all jobs can be done from a laptop in the spare room.
It’s also influenced by lockdowns and other restrictions, particularly when they are confined to one state such as the second wave in Victoria.
The current lockdown in Sydney will also impact the overall numbers.
In my travels around various social media, I’ve seen comments suggesting that the journey to work data from the 2021 Census will be rendered useless as a comparative tool.
It’s almost certain that Sydney will still be locked down when the Census is held, resulting in a higher than a normal number of people working from home.
While this assertion is largely true, the importance of looking at the data from a point-in-time perspective cannot be understated.
The 2021 Census data will provide more detail on the industry and occupations of people who work from home.
This information is still useful for a variety of purposes such as workforce, transport, and infrastructure planning.
ABS data also suggests that people work from home not only due to lockdowns but also because of flexible working arrangements.
This points to working from home becoming far more common in the post-pandemic landscape. In other words, even without lockdowns, it’s likely that the working from home population will increase substantially.
ABS data shows that an increasing number of people are moving out of Sydney and Melbourne.
Property analysts in particular point to the ability of some people to work from home in a regional location, and that this is fuelling demand for regional properties.
The significance of this trend will be informed by the internal migration data collected in the Census as there are questions on place of residence one and five years prior.
When cross-classified by demographic characteristics such as age, a picture of who is moving in and out of a region can be obtained.
Moreover, the spatial patterns of these new migration trends are better informed by the Census data.
Where are the people leaving Sydney and Melbourne relocating?
Is it within the peri-urban catchment, or further afield?
Regardless of the answer, these demographic trends impact local service planning, land supply, and infrastructure provision.
Language and birthplace
The diversity of languages spoken and proficiency in English is well informed by Census data.
In 2016, about one in five Australians spoke a language other than English. In terms of service planning and even COVID-19 related strategies, the data available at the local level is critical.
Victoria’s second COVID-19 wave highlighted the need for more localised communication strategies in other languages to overcome barriers presented by people with poor English proficiency.
There is evidence that the current outbreak in Sydney is facing similar challenges.
Of course, it’s not just COVID-19 related strategies that will be informed by this data, it is used for a range of planning-related services such as public health, interpreters, and media communication.
In a similar vein, birthplace data is also of interest.
I recently wrote a blog that looked at more current trends, but the 2021 Census will provide a more comprehensive evidence base.
Where do emerging communities such as the Nepalese population live?
How old are they?
What are their socio-economic characteristics? In light of minimal overseas migration since March 2020, will the proportion of overseas-born persons increase compared to 2016?
Losing our religion
To paraphrase a song from the early 1990s, Australians have been progressively losing their religion for several decades.
Since 1971, the proportion of Australians claiming no religion has steadily increased, reaching just shy of 30% in 2016.
Younger people in particular are more likely to claim no religion.
The Census remains the only comprehensive source of data on religion in Australia.
As a result, the data is highly sought after and at times, controversial.
I’m forever bemused at claims by some commentators that Muslims are taking over Australia, yet they only represent 2.6% of the population.
They completely miss the key trend that Australians are increasingly non-religious.
Given past trends, some campaigning by high profile entertainers, and consideration of the age structure, the proportion of Australians with no religion is likely to exceed 33% in 2021 ie one in three.
Surely that tells us more about modern Australia?
New questions on the 2021 Census form
The 2021 Census will include new questions on long-term health conditions and defense force service.
I’m particularly excited about the potential for the data on long-term health conditions to inform health planning at a local level.
In Victoria, councils are required to produce a municipal health and wellbeing plan every four years.
In the past, one of the challenges preparing these has been the relative lack of data available for LGAs.
This new Census data on long-term health conditions is a bit of a game-changer, in that not only will the health data be available, but it can be cross-classified with other demographic variables collected in the Census.
It can also be used in conjunction with the disability indicator to provide more comprehensive data.
The current outbreak in Sydney certainly raises some challenges for the collection of Census data, but the ABS is well placed to manage these sorts of crises.
The ABS expects that 75% of households will complete their Census forms online, rather than the traditional drop-off and pick-off of paper forms.
Of course, these options are still available, but the ABS is moving with the times and facilitating more flexible options to allow everyone to participate in the Census.
Finally, I don’t think the pandemic is a reason to cancel or delay the Census.
If anything, it provides researchers, policymakers, and planners to assess the impact of a global pandemic.
Who has been more adversely affected?
Where do we need to concentrate our recovery efforts?
The comments in this blog are merely a subset of the range of options that an updated evidence base presents.
The data will be released progressively from June 2022 — let the countdown begin!
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