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Tracking Social Change in New Zealand - From Birth to Death IV

by Judith Davey

Mervyl McPherson
Lecturer in Social Policy
Massey University
Palmerston North

In Tracking Social Change in New Zealand: From Birth to Death IV, Judith Davey continues the series begun in 1985 with From Birth to Death by the Social Monitoring Group of the New Zealand Planning Council, which also produced From Birth to Death II in 1989 before becoming defunct. Davey, who had been a member of the secretariat of the Social Monitoring Group, picked up the series in 1993 with From Birth to Death III.

The aim of the series has been to present trends, social statistics or indicators in a processed, user-friendly format within a simple theoretical context of social policy. Throughout the series, links have been made with the application of social statistical trends to social policy. This is in keeping with general trends in the discipline of demography and official statistics. Statistics New Zealand has also published a range of publications containing analysis of statistics in a social policy framework aimed at a non- technical readership. The Population Studies Centre at Waikato University emphasises the policy implications of its work, though still maintaining a predominantly academic approach.

The structural framework approach taken through the series is that of the life-cycle stage. This latest issue has chapters on birth and the early years, childhood and dependent teenagers (5-14 years), transition to adulthood (15-19 years), young adulthood (20-39 years), the middle years (40-59 years), the young elderly (60-74 years), the older elderly (75 years or more), and finishes the cycle with a chapter on death. Within each of the age- defined chapters a set of key indicators is covered, such as demographic trends, family and household circumstances, income, work, and health and well-being. The final chapter then draws together the overall implications for policy.

The positive contribution of this book is that it presents a wealth of summary data pre- processed into a usable format for those who are unable to go to the raw data themselves. The appendices are particularly detailed, although I found myself wanting to see "Total" at the end of the age groups by way of comparison and overall situation on an indicator.

The book also provides time series analysis from 1981-1996 and, where categories are consistent, enables time series analysis over a longer period by continuing in the established Birth to Death format. It is thus possible to follow some useful social trends, such as changes in family and household structures, and changes in education and employment patterns, especially by gender in the latter case.

Life-cycle approach

However, I would hope that policy analysts would use this book only as an indicator of trends, and go for deeper and more detailed age-group analysis in their sector, particularly cohort analysis. For me, the key issue of the usefulness of this book is the life-cycle approach versus the policy sector approach, and the need for a consideration of total population analysis as well as the breakdown by life-cycle stage, and for more detailed age-group analysis, and particularly cohort analysis. No one book can do everything, and the strength of this book is in making the links between social trends and policy, and examining the multivariate policy effects for a particular group or life-cycle stage. This latter is, in fact, one of the reasons the original publication in this series chose this approach, together with trying to make the statistics more accessible to the general public through allowing individuals to identify with a particular section of the book in a holistic way.

But do we actually make policy for a particular life-cycle stage, and are life-cycle stages independent of one another? The children of the first two chapters (0-14) are no doubt part of families and households of those dealt with in other chapters, such as young adulthood (20-39), but also part of the next chapter/age group (40-59). The final policy chapter brings together a summary of the key findings by sector, but is very brief and superficial, particularly in its social policy theoretical analysis.

And at an empirical level, I found it frustrating not to have an overall chapter that covered the key social indicators (demographic, family and household, income and work, health and well-being) for the total population, so that policy analysts could have answers to questions such as "How many households contain a traditional nuclear family of two parents plus dependent children?" and could see how patterns for particular life-cycle stages stand in relation to those for the population as a whole. While disaggregation is important, so too is aggregation.

Nor does the policy chapter draw links between various policy sectors. For instance, it is fairly well documented that outcomes on health indicators are related to other social policy sectors, such as housing, income and employment.

This is, of necessity, a very "broad brush" approach, covering such a wide spectrum of indicators throughout the life span. For me, this is the book's downfall for an audience of policy analysts or academics, such as the readership of this journal, who, I would hope, would be requiring more in-depth data analysis within their specific field. A more appropriate audience for the book, in my view, would be undergraduate students or the, general public.

In the Introduction, Davey writes of the necessity in tracking social change for disaggregation of national-level trends which "obscure significant differences between groups"(p.7), and lists the mainstays of sociological analysis as age, gender and ethnicity. While I would not disagree with these three, I believe that the superficial level of age analysis permitted, in a book which attempts to cover such breadth, results in exactly what Davey says we must avoid - obscuring trends by using broad-brush aggregation of statistics.

The age groupings, while equating to life-cycle stages as defined, are very broad, and what is missing (that I believe is required in academic and policy analysis) is any cohort analysis, in conjunction with the period effect.

For example, we can examine the results of a cohort analysis on the kind of data presented in Chapter Six, the analysis of labour force participation by gender in the middle years. I happened to be looking at the 1996 census statistics on labour force participation by gender for the purpose of updating some teaching material from 1991 to 1996 data. Using five-year age groups to show male-female differences in full-time work, and I noticed an interesting phenomenon occurring in the cohort of women aged 45-49 in 1991 and 50-54 in 1996. A simple trend analysis shows (Table 1) that the percentage of women 50-54 years old who are in full-time work increased from 42% in 1991, to 46% in 1996. Yet the number and percentage of the 1996 cohort of 50-54 year olds in full-time work was less than when this cohort was aged 45-49, in 1991 (50%).

Table 1 Women in Full-time Employment

1991 % 1996 %
40-45 years 50 51
50-54 years 42 46

So while the data show more women in their early fifties work full-time, we are still getting a noticeable decline in full-time employment as women move from their late forties into their fifties. That is, we are not seeing a new pattern for younger cohorts of women who were more likely to be in full-time paid work in their twenties, thirties and forties, continuing on into their fifties. We are still getting a drop-out rate and we need to investigate whether this is due to unemployment, redundancy or by choice.

In the policy context this information is important for whether younger cohorts of women are more likely than current cohorts of elderly women to be in full-time work and able to save for retirement, and/or continue working into their early sixties to relieve the pressure on superannuation costs. Although the data show that more 50-54 year old women are in full-time work in 1996 than in 1991, there is still a decline in full-time employment for women in their early fifties compared with that same cohort of women when they were in their late forties.

This example shows the limitations of the broad age-group and period-analysis approach of Tracking Social Change for serious policy analysis.

In comparison to this approach to presenting social statistics in New Zealand, the British equivalent, British Social Trends, structures their publication and analysis of social statistical data by policy area, and does more detailed age-group analysis within each area. The disadvantage of the univariate policy area approach is that you miss the interactive and multivariate aspects of policy, such as the effects of policy requiring women to stay in the labour force to provide for their retirement, versus health policy of de-institutionalisation and "community" care that requires these same mid-life women to fulfil their traditional caring roles in the community.

Indicators, analysis and interpretation

The other issue I would like to comment on is the Choice of some of the indicators used in the Birth to Death series. Davey discusses the potential problems inherent in choosing indicators to represent social well-being: the need to rely on what is measurable and available, and the value judgements inherent in selecting indicators, as well as the dangers of ascribing causality to associations between trends and policy, and extrapolating trends into the future. In addition, she was also constrained by trying to retain comparability with previous volumes in the series.

However there are some further issues relating to indicators and their analysis and interpretation that bear comment. She makes assumptions about family and household measures, and the importance of social and legal marital status. According to Davey (p.4), families and households "frequently coincide". I found myself wanting to know "how frequently" now, and that sort of information is not (easily) found in this book. For the age group 20-39 it appears to be 65% (Infogram 5.3), using Statistics New Zealand definition of a family, which includes couples without children. It is easy to obtain from published census data the actual correlation between a family and a household for the total population: 69% in 1996, down from 73% in 1986, and nearly 40% of these are couple-only families with no children resident.

Our statistical definition of family is still constrained by what is measured in the census. For instance, we know that, as a consequence of marital or relationship dissolution, we now have “families across households”, that is, children whose parents have joint custody and who move between the households of both parents. If a family ceases to live together in the same household, does that mean the family ceases to be a family? Is a child who frequently sees and stays with the non-custodial parent really in a sole-parent family, or just a sole-parent family household, or perhaps two sole-parent family households? Surely such children still have two active parents, not one.

A major finding in the summary of the Chapter on children under five years of age was that there has been a reversal in the trend in the proportion of children aged under five living in one-parent family households since 1991. On investigation, this is shown to be very minor (a 2% drop for Maori and Pacific Island ethnic groups), and it is certainly too early to be talking of trend reversal. The other key issue that needs to be placed alongside this claim, but is not discussed until the final chapter on policy implications, is that this is not because more are living in two-parent families, but more are living in multiple-family households. The distinction between “families” and “family households” needs to be made more explicit than it is. In fact, there has been a slight increase or stability in the proportion of children aged under five years who live in sole-parent families, as opposed to households (from 17.2% in 1991, to 17.7% in 1996).

The second issue here is that choosing to present data on households rather than families suggests that living in a multiple-family household is more positive than a sole-parent family household. It may be more positive, in terms of increased support, and it may be a cultural preference. But there is equal anecdotal evidence available to support the alternative explanation that, in fact, it is due to economic necessity (in the context of events such as the 1991 benefit cuts and removal of domestic purpose benefits for women under 18) and the result is a negative one of overcrowding and resultant increase in childhood diseases, such as is being seen in South Auckland.

I also query the continuing utility of analysing trends in ex-nuptial births, given the large proportion that are known to be to cohabiting parents. This was estimated by analysis of addresses on birth registration forms by Statistics New Zealand to be more than 50% since 1982 (Statistics New Zealand 1993:46).

In the area of ethnicity, the current census definitions of each ethnicity are given in the appendix, but in the appendix on family types by ethnicity, it does not say how a family is defined by ethnicity — is it by the ethnicity of one child in the family, or the majority of children, or one parent? And once again, I found myself wanting information in Table A.3 on the percentage of all children in each family type, by ethnicity, i.e. 0—14, not just the disaggregated information.

However, overall, Davey's analysis of the data on children (0-14 years) explodes the myth of New Zealand maintaining its 1950s-to-1970s label as "a great place to bring up kids", and calls for an effective policy response.

In the young adults (20-39 years) chapter I found this negative interpretation of the data continued, and was not so able to accept this as I can see alternative emphases. For instance, the decline in marriage and partnership is presented in the negative. Instead, this could have been presented positively, as an increase in independence for women reflected in the increasing proportions of young adults not marrying. A longer time-series perspective, in fact, shows that high rates of marriage were a short-lived aberration of the sixties and seventies, and we are just starting to move back towards the levels of not marrying that prevailed in the first half of this century (Statistics New Zealand 1993:42).

Another positive trend not highlighted in the summary box for this age group is their increasing participation in tertiary education, especially for women.


Davey (p.1) sets out in her introduction the belief of the New Zealand Planning Council that "good and successful policy-making/planning must be well-informed" and that "the analysis of change and identification of emerging trends and problems" should be linked to "evaluation and co-ordination of policy in all sectors and all levels of decision-making" and that "the central impetus of social monitoring is the measurement of social well-being, the improvement of which is a central objective of social policy".

It is perhaps disappointing, then, that she finds herself concluding that, "The findings of this analysis which are especially relevant to social policy tend to restate those of earlier from Birth to Death volumes" (p.250, my emphasis). Whilst her own interpretation of this consistency is that it "underlines the ongoing importance of these issues", I see it as indicative of the unfortunately wide gap that still exists between empirical research findings, and policy making and improved social well-being.

The continuing and increasing ethnic disparities on most social indicators, and the few improvements seen on indicators of well-being of our children, indicate that little effectively has been done in response to the findings and recommendations of earlier volumes in this series. The question is, has no response been made, has a wrong or ineffective response been made, or are factors outside the control of policy makers responsible for these outcomes?

In this current volume Davey covers the fifteen-year period 1981-1996 - a period, as she notes, of fundamental change in the social policy environment, which has been variously described, but can be summed up by the title of Jane Kelsey's 1993 publication, "Rolling Back the State" (including the rolling back of the New Zealand Planning Council which initiated the Birth to Death series!). Davey (p.1) herself cautions against the fallacy of attributing cause between variables, in particular between policy and social indicator trends, where only association can be established. However, this is certainly an association warranting more in-depth investigation as to its potentially causal relationship.

The problem we continue to face as social indicator and social policy researchers is to get our findings used by policy makers. This is a subject of current literature and conference presentations in the field (Pool 1997, Wightman 1996). There are several issues involved, but most fundamental is that research findings are but one of many factors feeding into the policy-making process, a process that is inherently political in nature, with political ideology often overriding empirical evidence, or colouring its interpretation and utilisation.

Other issues in the interface between policy making and empirical research are the differing time frames for research and evaluation (lengthy), and policy making (immediate); the often detailed, complex and technical nature of data analysis and the policy maker's need for simple, clear conclusions and recommendations. Davey, in this publication, has gone some way to providing accessible material and so this is a step in the right direction. However, I would say that if this broad-level, simplified analysis is better than what policy-makers are currently basing policy on, they would be missing some key trends, and we have cause for concern and a long way to go in educating policy-makers.

To improve the utilisation of research and evaluation findings by policy makers we need to work together more in deciding on what the indicators will be and involving the users in the design of the research, not just presenting findings. Wightman (1996:5) quotes research showing that "in the absence of an explicit organising principle such as a shared set of clearly defined national goals the indicators are of little value", and recommends the Oregon benchmarking approach (SLCRC 1996, cited in Wightman 1996:6).

Pool (1997:16) concludes, that we must move beyond recording and analysing social indicator data to "interpreting the implications for policy... and communicating this to the general public and policymakers". Communication between researchers and policy makers is the key: whilst researchers need to improve the nature of that communication, policy makers have to be prepared to seek out and accept and grapple with the complex nature of the issues we are dealing with and, therefore, of the findings presented to them.

I find a contradiction in the claims by the Director of the Institute of Policy Studies in the foreword of this publication that, "high quality social policy requires the availability of high quality statistics relating to the issues at hand" and "this volume will therefore be indispensable to all social scientists and policy-makers in New Zealand". If the first part is true, then I would hope that our policy makers move beyond their desire for simplicity and search out more detailed analysis than this book (with its coverage of the whole policy spectrum, rather than specific policy issues) can provide.


Pool, Ian (1997) "New Zealand Population Policy: Issues and Challenges for the Demographic Profession" New Zealand Population Review, 23:1-18.

Statistics New Zealand (1993) All About Women in New Zealand, Wellington.

Wightman, Lee (1996) "Barriers to the Effective Use of Research in Policymaking" presented to Family Research: Pathways to Policy, Fifth Australian Family Research Conference, The Office for Families and Children, Adelaide.

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Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: Issue 11

Tracking Social Change in New Zealand - From Birth to Death IV by Judith Davey

Dec 1998

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