2021 Census data reveals the changing nature of Australia

2021 Census data reveals the changing nature of Australia

Highlights from the first release of data from the 2021 Census. What are the major shifts at the national level? What trends will you be reading about in the coming weeks and months?

After a long wait, the first release of the results of the 2021 Census of Population and Housing are finally here! The ABS has released about 75% of the datasets today, with more to come in October, and next March. We’ll be writing about this Census for some time, and updating all the .id sites for our clients over the coming weeks and months. But in the meantime, as widely reported today, here is our take on a few of the key national results from the Census.

2021 was a Census like no other. It was run in the middle of a pandemic, with Australia’s borders closed, and nearly half the population in COVID lockdown. It already shows in the data.

  • The 2021 Census recorded a total of 25,422,788 usual residents of Australia on Census night. This is an increase of 2,020,896 people since the 2016 Census. Despite the fact that the last two years of the 5 year period had lower population growth, this is the largest increase ever recorded in a Census count. Why? With closed borders, less people were temporarily overseas, and there was also a higher response rate (96.1% of all dwellings).
  • For the same reason, the number of overseas visitors in Australia declined by over 80%, from 315,000 in 2016 to about 62,000 in 2021. New Australian residents who were born overseas numbered just over 1 million (1,020,007), but this is less than the 1,324,435 who arrived in the period between the 2011 and 2016 Censuses. More of the population were counted at home on Census night, but still nearly 4% were away from their usual address on the night. Lockdowns in some states were offset by more people traveling within Australia where they were able to, rather than traveling overseas.
  • The net undercount in the Census declined to 0.7% of population. This is a combination of missing people and double counting others. The net undercount was lowest in NSW, Vic and the ACT – states primarily in lockdown over the Census. Despite having to use COVID-safe non-contact procedures for collection, the count was better simply because people were more likely to be at home. The ACT again had a net overcount: more people were counted twice than were missed! But the Northern Territory undercount was up to 6.0%, reflecting a worse undercount for the Indigenous population of the territory in particular.
  • 27.6% of Australians were born overseas, up from 26.3% in 2016 and 24.6% in 2011. The United Kingdom remains the largest country of birth outside Australia, but the largest increase was from India, which takes 3rd spot in total numbers behind Australia and the UK. China is next.
  • A widely reported increase in “millennials” aged 25–39 compared to “baby boomers” aged 55–74 is really just due to the ageing of the population and an influx of migrants in their 20s over the last 15 years. Baby boomers have reached their retirement years, and mortality has an impact at this stage as well.
  • The population reporting “no religion” or secular beliefs such as atheism and agnosticism has increased from 30% to almost 39% in 2021.This is another large increase – in 2016 this was partly due to a rewording of the religion question, but the question remained the same between 2016 and 2021, so it’s a clear population shift into this category.
  • Mandarin remains the largest language spoken at home after English. (The Indian population, though larger, speak a number of different languages.)
  • For the first time there is data on long-term health conditions in the Census. Nationally, approximately 8,063,000 people reported a long-term health condition or just under 1/3rd of the population. We will be rolling out a page for this on our community profile.
  • The population identifying as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander increased by 25% since 2016,and now comprises 3.2% of the total population. This is a similar increase in percentage terms to that seen in other Censuses, and is partly due to a high fertility rate and partly due to a greater propensity to identify as Aboriginal over time.
  • It’s been widely reported today that more than 1 million dwellings are “vacant” across Australia,with the usual commentary that speculators are buying up property and keeping people homeless, etc. Not to say that there aren’t issues with housing affordability and access in Australia, but the unoccupied dwelling data from Census doesn’t show that. The 1,043,776 unoccupied dwellings could be unoccupied for a variety of reasons, including people away on holiday just for the night. It overwhelmingly includes holiday homes in coastal areas as it always has, and the number is almost identical to 2016 (1,039,872) and therefore lower as a percentage given that there were almost a million extra dwellings in Australia in 2021.
  • Despite media reports about everyone escaping lockdowns by caravanning around Australia, there was a decline in the number of occupied caravans, cabins and houseboatscounted in this Census, from about 96,000 in 2016 to about 88,000 in 2021.

For more information on the key outcomes at a national level, see the ABS media release centre.

Of course, the real Census story is in the small area data for Local Government Areas, suburbs, towns and districts across the nation, each with its own story of change to tell. We will be writing about these over the next few weeks, months, even years. Most importantly we have received data from the ABS and will be vetting it and loading it into all the .id sites, starting with the community profile and atlas sites as quickly as possible. The community sites have a banner on the home page, notifying our users of the pending update to the site. Each page will have an orange 2021 logo on it when it’s been updated, and that will become the default year, with the option of selecting from up to 4 or 6 comparison years, depending on the topic.


You can see our approximate order of rollout of the pages in my previous blog here.

Stay tuned, and sign up for our product updates where we’ll let you know what’s been updated and when. You can also read up on all things about .id and the Census on this page.

We have also been informed that Tablebuilder service, which allows us to build custom cross-tabulations will not have 2021 data available for some time, hopefully before second release. While this won’t affect the update of the community profiles and atlas sites, this will affect some consultancy work planned over the next few months. If you have requested any sort of analysis that could be impacted, our consultants will be in touch.

In the meantime, feel free to ask questions and comment on anything you’ve found from the ABS release in the comments section.

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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