Story: Families: a history

Page 8. 21st-century families

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Family practices

Family practices vary, but in the 21st century most people are still involved in satisfying, challenging and often complex relationships with partners, children, parents, siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts and other relatives.

Saying ‘I love you’

Some people find it hard to tell their children that they love them. One grandfather said that: ‘I do find it easier to say “I love you” to my mokopuna than to my own kids … Maybe when they were small I said it, but then they grew up. You don’t say “I love you” to men!’1

21st-century parents

Parents in the early 21st century were most likely to be in their late 20s or early 30s at the birth of their first child. Women’s fertility was highest in the age group 30–34 years, and the median age for women giving birth in 2015 was 30. However, the age of mothers of newborns varied across ethnic groups. In 2015 the median age of Māori mothers was 26.2 years, for Pacific mothers it was 27.2 years, for Asian mothers 31.3 years and for Pākehā mothers 30.7 years.

The average age of fathers of newborn babies was 32 years, approximately four years older than their own fathers when they were born. One baby in 100 had a father who was over 50 years old.

Parents were not only older; they were also less likely to be married. In 2015, 53% of live births were to married mothers, compared to 87% of live births in 1968. Both parents were also much more likely to be in paid work than they were 30 years before, but mothers were still most likely to be the primary caregivers of babies and young children.

Effects of delayed parenting

People who become parents for the first time in their 30s will be older parents of teenage children and have financial responsibilities for the next generation in their late 50s and 60s. Delayed retirement may be a consequence of delayed parenting and consistent with the removal of age discrimination at work and debate about raising the age level for state-supported New Zealand Superannuation.

Lower fertility but more twins

The average number of births per woman in 2017 was 1.81, below the level required to replace the population without depending on immigration. In the early 21st century the rate hovered around replacement level. This was a drop from 4.3 births per woman in 1961.

They are so lucky

Some children may have four parents spread across several households and a wide set of whānau or family connections. In a study of gay and lesbian families, Pia spoke about her children’s family connections: ‘Rhianna and Lena have seven grandmothers … and they’ve got three grandfathers … they’ve got this incredibly diverse and colourful large family, and it’s just all full of love really. You know, they’re so lucky.’2

But while the number of births per woman was dropping, there was a small rise in the number of multiple births. Twins and triplets were about 9–11 per 1,000 confinements between the early 1880s and early 1990s but increased to 14 per 1,000 in 2015. Contributing to this were delays in childbearing and increasing use of reproductive technologies.

Diverse families, different connections

In the early 21st century children were growing up in many different types of family households – some with two heterosexual parents, some in sole-parent families, some with lesbian parents and gay fathers who were also involved in their care, others with grandparents or other family members. Some people were concerned about this variety in family circumstances – on the other hand, there was more acceptance of different ways of being a family and bringing up children.

The families in which children grew up were also increasingly ethnically diverse – almost a quarter of all babies born in 2014 belonged to more than one ethnic group. 70% of Māori babies and 52% of Pacific babies had multiple ethnic connections.

Jobs, kids and grandparents

Parents increasingly depended on grandparents to manage jobs and childcare – especially when they had preschool children. A quarter of grandparents surveyed in 2009 cared for grandchildren on a regular basis each week, and nearly 60% cared for them ‘now and then’. 58% were looking after grandchildren while their parents were in paid work. Some had reduced their own working hours or even moved cities to provide this care.

Whānau Ora – responding to differences

Families in New Zealand vary not only in their composition and in relationships among family members, but also in their access to income, housing, health, education and other aspects of well-being. In 2010 Whānau Ora was developed to provide cross-government support to families in need through non-governmental organisations contracted to work closely with families to find out what will be useful for them.

Whānau Ora was modelled on te ao Māori principles and practices and directed at supporting Māori and Pasifika families that are statistically over-represented among families with least financial resources. However, it was available to families of all ethnicities. The programme was administered by Te Puni Kōkiri which worked with iwi and Crown representatives and three commissioning agencies who had direct contact with non-governmental organisations contracted to work with whānau who needed support. Kaiārahi (or navigators) in particular communities met directly with family members and liaised with agencies to ensure they had the support they needed. A review by the Auditor General in 2015, concluded that while programme was innovative in its collective approach to family well-being, better planning and financial management was needed.

Virtual families

While ‘the home’ as a physical place has been an important symbol of family connectedness, connections to kin beyond the family home have always been important in New Zealand, especially because New Zealanders moved around the country and many people were immigrants or the descendents of immigrants. Many young adults also left for study, jobs and life experiences outside New Zealand and established families in other parts of the world.

In the 21st century family members remained connected through phone calls, text and email messages, but increasingly through social networking sites like Facebook or online voice-call services like Skype. Dispersed, varied, forming and re-forming, families stretched themselves across vast distances to connect virtually or face-to-face for family reunions, anniversaries, to celebrate new arrivals or farewell other family members.

Footnotes:
  1. A. Kerslake Hendricks and others, Changing roles: the pressures and pleasures of being a grandparent in New Zealand, Research Report 1/10. Wellington: Families Commission Kōmihana ā Whānau, 2010, p. 32. Back
  2. Alex Gunn and Nicola Surtees, We’re a family: how lesbian and gay men are creating and maintaining family in New Zealand, Blue Skies Fund Report 29/09. Wellington: Families Commission Kōmihana ā Whānau, 2009, p. 23. Back
How to cite this page:

Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Families: a history - 21st-century families', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/families-a-history/page-8 (accessed 26 April 2019)

Story by Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jul 2017