Making Sense of Us: How ANU Students Compare to the Typical Canberran

The first glimpse of results from last year’s census – of #CensusFail fame – were released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) last week. Using the median age and modal category for a range of basic variables, the ABS has produced a series of statistical snapshots that represent the ‘typical’ Census respondent in each state and territory.

While, realistically, this a very cursory look at a complex set of statistics that seek to simplify the characteristics of an even more complex population, it’s really interesting information to reflect on.

Especially for me, as someone who’s only lived in the ACT as a student – much like many of my peers – it can be easy to overlook the existence of a wider Canberran population beyond the confines of the ANU.

Sure, we may joke that it’s a city full of public servants, but some contextual understanding of the city we live, work and study in couldn’t hurt, right? After all, while we’re watching the political repercussions of the average citizen’s insular perceptions of the world play out on a larger scale, a little contextual grounding about their situation might help us to understand and, even, retort their views.

According to the ABS, the ‘typical’ ACT respondent is female. She is 34 years old and her highest educational qualification is a Year 12 certificate*. Already, it is clear that this person is a far cry from the typical ANU student, and even further removed from the average resident on Daley Road. They are married, have two children and live in a home which they own with a mortgage. The thought of marriage and children is a stretch for many of us, and presently impossible for some, and recent data suggests that we’re likely to spend our lifetimes in rental properties. The typical resident was born in Australia, as were her parents, and if they are a migrant then they originated from England. This, too, reflects a far lesser degree of the multiculturalism within the microcosm of the ANU student body.

These statistics provide a brief snapshot of Canberra now. But, for the first time, the census can be compared to statistics for the ACT – then known as the ‘Federal’ Capital Territory – from over 100 years ago. The first ACT census, collected in 1911 – only a year after the ACT was legislated into existence – paints a very different picture of the average resident. This contrast is even more interesting to consider for a city that continues to develop before our very eyes. It’s really important to note, however, that these statistics exclude Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, who were unforgivably excluded from Census counts until after the 1967 referendum.

In 1911, the typical Census respondent was male, not female. This can largely be explained by a reduction in the risk of death during childbirth and, supposedly, the advent of the motor vehicle – which have together widened the gap between male and female life expectancy in the past century. They’re far, far younger – the median age class was 21 – 24, and relatedly, are unmarried and have no children. They’re still born in Australia, and although comparable migrant statistics were not collected, it is striking to consider that at this time there were only five people in the ACT who had been born in Asia.

Conducting a Census is plagued by complex methodological issues and is generally associated with important policy applications but, personally, this doesn’t have to be so. On a much simpler level, it provides us with another way of reflecting on what our country looks like today and where we fit within it. Making those results accessible to the people they represent has value, and the kind of simple presentation of basic statistics within this first release does exactly that. Of course, this is only a glimpse, and I for one eagerly await the the full results release in June, and the insights that will bring!

* This doesn’t mean to suggest that most Canberrans are, in fact, 38 year old married women with children (that would have been a very surprising finding indeed!) but, instead, that these are the modal/most common categories for each variable.