Census Crystal Ball Gazing 2021: what will the Census show?

Census Crystal Ball Gazing 2021: what will the Census show?

With Census Day 2021 just passed, Glenn Capuano – demographer and .id’s Census expert – lays out his top predictions for the results of this pandemic-era survey of Australia’s population.

Keep up-to-date on all Census 2021 news.

It’s become an .id tradition that around the time of each Census, I write up my predictions of what the Census results may show. Last Census, I made 12 predictions about the makeup of Australia’s population, and scored 7 hits, 2 partial hits, and 3 misses.

Of course, there is nothing psychic about it – these predictions are always based on what we have gleaned about changes in Australia’s society through talking to our clients, dealing with datasets released since the last Census, and some educated guesses about noteworthy events of recent years.

The Census is a vitally important dataset, and it’s imperative that everyone fills it in accurately – even more so in 2021, which comes at a time of substantial change in Australian society. For the past 18 months we’ve been living in the shadow of COVID-19, which has changed every aspect of our lives. From no overseas travel to frequent lockdowns or stay-at-home orders and state borders closing at short notice, to long-term working from home and periods of isolation. There is almost no-one in Australia who is untouched by the global pandemic, though we haven’t seen the death rate of many other places. Some things don’t change much from Census to Census, but it’s certain that there will be major changes in many of the Census characteristics in 2021, as a direct result of the pandemic.

So with that in mind, here are my Crystal Ball predictions for the results of the 2021 Census, held on August 10th, 2021, with results expected in June 2022.

1. Slower population growth

Australia’s Estimated Resident Population for June 30th, 2021 will be revised to 25,675,000, slightly down from the current estimates, and representing an increase of about 1,500,000 since 2016 but a small fall from the June 2020 figure currently estimated at 25,692,627. (Of course, this gets revised after Census as well.) After hitting 25 million in late 2018, it will take at least 6 years for the nation to add the next million, due to population growth close to zero with our borders currently closed. 26 million is not likely to be reached until after 2024.

2. Census count much closer to the estimated resident population

In 2016, the Census counted 23,401,890 Australian residents here on Census night, an increase of almost 1.9 million on the previous Census. Despite lower total population growth, the Census count in 2021 will increase to 25,400,000 – an increase of approximately 2 million. Despite lower growth, this is because far fewer residents will be overseas on Census night (it being illegal to leave the country without an exemption and most countries not accepting visitors during the pandemic anyway). The Census doesn’t count anyone who isn’t in Australia on Census night and those overseas are factored back into the official population but not in the Census. Last Census this meant that we counted about 800,000 people less than the population. But this Census that gap will narrow to 275,000, predominantly comprising about 1% of population who are genuinely missed in the Census, plus just a few thousand overseas.

In 2016, the Census coincided with the Rio Olympics, and I (incorrectly) predicted a decline in professional athletes in Australia due to them being at the Olympics. For the first time ever, in 2021 we have the Olympics in an odd numbered year – but they conclude just before Census night.

3. 80% of Australians will fill in the Census online

Last Census the site went down on Census night, but we still managed to get 64% of Australians doing the Census via the online form. The ABS is aiming for 75% online completion, but I predict they will exceed that and reach 80%. The take-up of everything online during the pandemic – such as shopping, government services, video-conferencing and working from home – means a greater proportion of the population are now familiar with living their lives online. There will be still some remote areas without internet access and elderly people who are not comfortable with it, but the added security of the online form over paper should also be a drawcard for many.

4. More people counted at home

In every Census, the vast majority of the population are counted at their usual residence. (Census night is a Tuesday night in August away from school holidays to ensure that’s the case.) Last Census, 4.9% of Australian residents were counted away from their usual address. In 2021, with lockdowns in force over significant parts of the country and border restrictions meaning interstate travel is largely off the cards, it’s likely that less people will be away than usual. I’m predicting 97.2% of the Census population will be at home on Census night. With Melbourne and Sydney both locked down – the Vic and NSW ski fields will also show a much lower enumerated population count than normal.

5. Less overseas visitors

This one doesn’t take a crystal ball! In the 2016 Census there was a big increase in the number of overseas visitors to Australia counted on Census night. These are excluded from the population but are actually part of the Census count. There were 315,524 people in this category in 2016, up from 219,399 in 2011. With the borders closed, very few flights into Australia and a mandatory 14 days of hotel quarantine to come from overseas, this will be far less. It will be interesting to see how much, but I’ll say no more than 25,000.

6. Changes to country of birth

The UK will remain the largest overseas-born grouping in Australia (just over 1 million people) but China and India will both overtake New Zealand to become the 2nd and 3rd largest places of origin, with around 620,000 and 600,000 people respectively. New Zealand will be 4th with about 550,000. Mandarin will remain the number one language after English, with Arabic second. Vietnamese will overtake Cantonese for third, while Italian will slide further.

7. Changing migration patterns

It’s hard to tell what will happen with regional populations. At the moment there is a clear shift away from our biggest cities due to the pandemic, with regional populations booming in some areas. But this isn’t nationwide, and the Census covers a full 5-year period, 3.5 years of which were pre-pandemic. Last Census, 78% of the nation’s growth was within the boundaries of our Greater Capital Cities (which cover more area than you might think). This Census (with no significant change to the geographic definitions of these areas), I predict that 60% of the growth will remain within capital cities, down on last time but still well over half.

8. Further rise in “no religion”

In 2016, the ABS changed the wording of the question “What is the person’s religion?”, moving the “No Religion” response to the top of the list. This drove a large increase in that response (30% of the population, up from 22% in 2011). But it’s part of a long-term trend, with every Census back to 1971 (when a specific category was first printed on the form for it) showing an increase in this category. It will increase again, but with no changes to the question, perhaps not quite as dramatically this time. “No religion” will remain the largest single response category, rising to 35% of total population. It is always the most controversial Census question, with various groups always trying to get people to answer according to their agenda. Remember that religion remains an optional question – nobody has to answer it, and around 9% of the population don’t, which has been stable for many years.

9. Increase in “work from home”

This is the one that everyone is waiting on! The pandemic has changed the way we work, but not equally and not the same everywhere. In 2016, 4.7% of the population said that they worked at home on Census day. There will be an increase in the base level of Work From Home, but this is increased again with a large part of the nation under lockdown rules preventing people from working on-site over the week of Census.  I predict that this will increase to 25% nationwide. But it won’t be even. The Census is being conducted while Sydney, Hunter Region and all of Victoria are under lockdown (and Cairns just added for a few days covering Census day, while SEQ was released just before Census, and parts of regional NSW have been added just after Census day).

This means that in our largest two cities plus some other areas, those who can work from home largely will be. Anecdotally, even when not in lockdown, there are still lots of people working from home in Victoria, and smaller but significant numbers in other states. Most white-collar industries are doing a hybrid model in non-lockdown times, with mix of home and office days. Given that many jobs can’t be done from home, it’s not going to be a majority, but it is going to be a lot more than in 2016. So 25% nationwide, with 35% in NSW and Victoria, around 15% in Qld (SEQ just coming out of lockdown) and 10% in the other states seems about right to me. See Keenan’s recent article on just this trend.

10. Further increase in renting

With house prices continuing to rise across the nation and interest rates falling even further to record lows over the past few years, we’re seeing first-home buyers needing to take out larger and larger mortgages to get a foot into the housing market. This is likely to see a further increase in the proportion of people who are renting, through being unable to get a deposit (and some for renting is by choice, of course). In 2016 renting made up 29.4% of all occupied dwellings. In 2021 this will rise to 30.9%, with mortgages and full home ownership falling slightly.  Among 25–34 year olds, renting will increase from 43.6% to 46.0%, as more are priced out of the housing market.

11. Unoccupied dwellings

In 2016, 10.5% of all dwellings – just over 1 million – were unoccupied on Census night. We will see a dual trend here in 2021. Most areas should record a decrease in unoccupied dwellings (remembering that unoccupied doesn’t mean vacant); less people overseas or travelling within Australia (we mostly can’t!) means more people at home. (See prediction #4 above.) Also, coastal holiday areas are seeing more people moving in semi-permanently to holiday homes that used to be only occupied in the summer. So occupancy rates in these areas should go up. But our inner cities have high vacancies due to a lack of short-term migrants and international students, so there will be a greater unoccupied rate in these areas. Just to make this more difficult,  ABS are also changing their procedures, to err on the side of not assuming dwellings are occupied unless there is evidence that they are. They have stated that applying this to 2016 would have meant an extra 1.7% of dwellings marked as unoccupied. All up, I’ll go with a slight increase in unoccupied dwellings to 11.2% nationwide, but huge regional differences.

12. Long term health conditions

The new question, for the first time measured in a Census, asks whether the person has been diagnosed with a range of long-term health conditions. This is a hard one to predict, since it’s all new – but I’ll say that 43% of Australians will have at least one long-term health condition, with arthritis being the most common of the listed conditions. This very interesting new topic will be added to all our Community Profile sites from 2022, so watch this space!

And now we wait

These predictions, if correct, will mark some pretty profound changes to Australian society over just 5 years. But at the moment, even 18 months ago – the start of the pandemic – seems such a long time. Five years is an eternity. We will have to wait a while for the results, with first release data in June 2022, and second release (all the employment related data) in October 2022. Though .id doesn’t get any priority access to the data, we’ll endeavour to get it into our Local Government clients’ Community Profile and other sites as soon after release date as we can. We’ll keep in touch about how the updates are going, and I’ll revisit these predictions after data release to see how close I got to reality (or not!). Please add your comments, if you have any other predictions or want to discuss these ones!

To see how the results from previous Censuses relate to your local area, you can access the Community Profiles for Local Government across Australia via our Demographic Resources centre.

Glenn - The Census Expert

Glenn is our resident Census expert. After ten years working at the ABS, Glenn's deep knowledge of the Census has been a crucial input in the development of our community profiles. These tools help everyday people uncover the rich and important stories about our communities that are often hidden deep in the Census data. Glenn is also our most prolific blogger - if you're reading this, you've just finished reading one of his blogs. Take a quick look at the front page of our blog and you'll no doubt find more of Glenn's latest work. As a client manager, Glenn travels the country giving sought-after briefings to councils and communities (these are also great opportunities for Glenn to tend to his rankings in Geolocation games such as Munzee and Geocaching).

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