As part of its 5-year Productivity Inquiry, the Australian Productivity Commission recently released an interim report into Australia’s productivity performance, entitled 5-year Productivity Inquiry: The Key to Prosperity.  The report states that:

At the turn of the twentieth century, life was materially worse for the average Australian than it is today, in many dimensions:
. For every 10 000 newborn babies, more than 1000 died before they reached their first birthday, compared to just 3 in 10 000 today.
. For infants who survived childbirth, life expectancy was about 60 years, compared to more than 80 years today. The invention of antibiotics, which largely eradicated infectious diseases such as cholera, diphtheria, pneumonia, typhoid fever, plague, tuberculosis, typhus, and syphilis, was decades away, and only became part of mainstream medicine from the 1950s.
. During their 60 years of life, the average Australian worked much longer hours than today (the 48 hour week was made law in 1916). There was little access to paid leave (paid annual leave was first introduced into industry awards beginning in 1935). And the workplace was more dangerous workplace.
. The average Australian died before accessing the age pension, which was introduced in 1909 for men aged 65 years and over. The average person could afford far fewer goods and services with wages he earned.
. Home life was more crowded (about 5 people per household in 1910 compared to less than 3 today in much larger houses) and much dirtier: automatic dishwashers and washing machines did not become commonplace in Australian households until at least the 1970s, and until the 1950s toilets were often located outside the house.

I thought it would be interesting to look at how some of this applied to those of our family who lived in the two decades either side of 1901, the year the Australian states federated to become a single nation.

This chart, produced using the application DNAPainter, shows my children’s direct ancestors who were alive in this period.

Generation from children:

  • Great grandparents: 7 were born in these decades
  • Great great grandparents: all 16 lived in these decades and 1 died
  • 3*great grandparents: 24 of the 32 lived in these decades and 10 died in the period
  • 4*great grandparents: 9 of the 64 are known to have lived in these decades and 6 died in the period

Altogether 56 of my children’s ancestors lived in the period 1891 – 1911, 7 were born in the period and 17 died in the period.

My children’s great grandparents who were born between 1891 and 1912 lived between 49 and 105 years. They died at average age of just under 77 years.

The age at first marriage for this generation ranged from 19 to 26 years, with an average age of 22. Families were usually small: two women had one child each, one had two and the fourth had six. No child died younger than one year old; one child died aged 17 months; the rest lived to adulthood.

All my children’s 16 great great grandparents were alive in the decades either side of 1901. They were born between 1856 and 1889. They died between 1898 and 1966 aged between 35 and 85, with the average age just over 70; Sarah Jane Young nee Way died at the age of 35 giving birth. This generation was first married between the ages of 18 and 38 at an average age of 25. The women had between one and ten children. The average was 5. Three families each lost a child aged less than one year. This was 7% of the 41 children born to this generation of women.

Twenty-four of my children’s 32 third great grandparents were alive in the decades either side of 1901. They were born between 1822 and 1862. All members of that generation died between 1872 and 1942. The average age at death was just over 65; the range was 26 to 85. (Annie Frances Champion Crespigny nee Chauncy died aged 26 as a consequence of childbirth.) The men and women of this generation were first married between the ages of 17 and 42 with the average age being 24. The women had between two and thirteen children, on average they had 7 children. Eight families lost between one and three children aged less than one year: 14 of the 112, or 12.5%, of the children born to this generation of women.

Nine of my children’s 64 fourth great grandparents were alive in the decades either side of 1901. Of the 47 fourth great grandparents whose year of birth I know, all were born between the years 1766 and 1835. I have the death dates for only 40 people of this generation. They died between 1832 and 1915. They were aged 36 to 92 with an average age at death of 63. For the 43 people whose age at marriage I know, their age at first marriage ranges from 17 to 49 with the average age being 25. The women had between at least 3 and 11 children, with the average being 7 children. 9 women lost at least one child and up to 4 children in infancy; 16 children out of 164, or one in ten died in the first year of life.

I have found it hard to gather the information for people living seven generations earlier—over 200 years ago— and thus am less confident in the figures but I think they give an indication of the experiences of those who lived in the era.

Clearly, however, the generation that was born around the time of Australian Federation in 1901 lived longer than previous generations and had smaller families.

Generation from childrenAverage LifespanAverage age when first marriedAverage number of children born to womenRate of babies died before they reached their first birthday
Great grandparents772220
Great great grandparents702557%
3*great grandparents6524712%
4*great grandparents6325710%

Based on the experience of Greg’s and my ancestors, I agree with the Productivity Commission that

  • Babies born to the generation born around 1900 were more likely to survive past one year than in previous generations.
  • The generation born in 1900 had longer lifespans than their forebears and their families were smaller.
  • The generation born around 1900 would seem to have been more likely to have been able to collect a pension and they lived in smaller households than their forebears.

The Productivity Commission asserts that

“at the turn of the twentieth century, life was materially worse for the average Australian than it is today on many dimensions”. The Commission states there has been a “dramatic rise in living standards over the past two centuries. This is despite the global population increasing almost 7-fold over that period. Just 200 years ago, 90 per cent of the world’s population lived in a state of extreme poverty, compared to less than 10 per cent today . In Australia, economic output per person — a general measure of prosperity — is around 7 times higher than at Federation (121 years ago).  This transformation is ultimately a function of human ingenuity: of being more productive — working smarter not harder.” …
“It means that people alive today have the opportunity to access an array of goods and services that were unimaginable in the past. And access to these goods and services can transform people’s quality of life.”

Ross Gittens wrote in ‘’The Age’’ of 10 August:

“When you think about it, this is amazing. Objectively, there’s no doubt we’re hugely more prosperous than our forebears. Our lives are longer and healthier, with less pain, less physical exertion, less work per week, bigger and better homes, more education, more comfort, more convenience, more entertainment, more holidays and travel, more ready contact with family and friends, and greater access to the rest of the world."

Gittens questions whether we feel better off: “We’re undoubtedly better off in 100 ways, but do we feel much better about it?”

I think the improvements in health and longevity mean we are indeed better off than previous generations.

The generation born around 1900 were fated to live through two world wars with all their dreadful consequences.  My maternal grandfather was a firm believer in education. His own made a huge difference in his ability to recover from the second World War 2. In its aftermath he was recruited to work in Australia, where he built a new life.

I do not think our ancestors would have hankered after, or even imagined, the blessings we take for granted, such as our many possessions and our ability to travel in comfort at great speed but they would have envied our health, our education, and the luxury we enjoy of freedom from worry about food and housing.


The expression ‘You’ve never had it so good’ was made popular by the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. In 1957, Macmillan made a speech in Bedford, UK to his fellow Conservatives, in which he offered the opinion that: “Let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good”. In the speech he celebrated the success of Britain’s post-war economy while at the same time urging wage restraint and warning against inflation. He was mimicking the line of the US Democratic Party which used ‘You never had it so good’ as a slogan in the 1952 US election campaign. From