News National The Stats Guy: A nation divided? How the 2021 Census will shape Australia’s future

The Stats Guy: A nation divided? How the 2021 Census will shape Australia’s future

Simon Kuestenmacher
The data Australia's first pandemic Census yields will play a vital role in shaping the nation's future. Image: TND
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“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.”

-Luke 2:1-20 NIV

Joseph and Mary had to jump through some big hoops to fulfill their census duties. The pair travelled over 100 kilometres on foot and donkey for about four days to be counted.

This week, when we fill out our Census form in under half an hour, we should praise the Australian Bureau of Statistics for making the 2021 Census form conveniently available online.

Come to think of it, as most of Australia will be in lockdown for Census night on Tuesday, a four-day hiking trip sounds rather appealing.

This Census is special – and I don’t say that to any old census.

What’s different about Census 2021?

New questions have been added around veteran status and chronic health conditions. I can’t wait to analyse how the different chronic diseases might relate to socio-economic status. Are the rich more likely to be diagnosed with depression than the poor? Let’s not speculate, lets wait until the data is released. Now that (almost) everyone has a smartphone we won’t be asked anymore if our house has access to the internet.

To avoid the 2016 server meltdown, we were granted a Census week, rather than a single Census day, to fill out our forms. As The Stats Guy I of course excitedly filled out my Census form right away. The online process is smooth, well designed, and there’s always an info button at hand if you are unsure how to answer a question.

The Australian Census is a treasure trove for data enthusiast and an indispensable tool for government and business alike.

We run our Census every five years and ask 60 questions. Our friends in the United States only conduct their Census every ten years and ask a miserly nine questions. The information that we can gather from our data about Australia is fantastic.

Why the Census matters

In my capacity as a demographic consultant, I often work with local governments who are keen to spend their limited financial resources in a fair way.

It’s easy to be cynical about governments’ intentions, but when I work with public servants on the ground, I find people keen to help their most disadvantaged constituents. It’s often Census data that allows analysts like me to pinpoint areas of need.

We can predict quite precisely the future needs of schools, understand commuting patterns, forecast housing needs, and so much more.

During the first weeks of COVID, 2016 Census data on international students was used to understand which areas of a city would be hit hardest by the border closures.

Australia’s first pandemic Census

The 2021 Census is the first to take place during a pandemic.

The majority of the population will be under some sort of lockdown on Census day.

At the 2016 Census 4.4 per cent of the population worked from home, but you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the 2021 figure is going to be much higher.

I am keen to discover Australia’s working-from-home capital. I suspect it’s going to be a wealthy (but not super rich) suburb about five to ten kilometres from the city centre.

The Census data allows us to understand who exactly left our capital cities to settle in regional Australia during the pandemic. Spoiler alert: the answer will likely be young families in search of affordable housing.

A nation divided

The Census might also reveal unpleasant news about us as a nation.

We are increasingly segregating along socio-economic lines.

The middle-class is shrinking away while we are adding many high-income and low-income jobs.

We will learn if the gender pay gap narrows or widens.

Are we making progress in closing the gap to ensure the Indigenous population suffers fewer disadvantages? The Census data will tell.

Not all answers will be pleasant, but they sure are important, helping us to understand the true status quo of our nation.

Let me end this column on a positive note.

Since most of us are filling out the Census digitally, the first cut of the results will be published much sooner than previously.

By June 2022 we will have most of the data ready to play with. My columns are going to write themselves!

Demographer Simon Kuestenmacher is a co-founder of The Demographics Group. His columns, media commentary and public speaking focus on current socio-demographic trends and how these impact Australia. Follow Simon on Twitter or LinkedIn for daily data insights.

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