A century later the total population was nearly five times as large as that of 1881. The censuses of 30 June 1981 recorded 1,318,770 people; urban Adelaide accounted for nearly 69%, other urban centres of over a thousand people for 16%, while only 15% of South Australians were classed as rural. During the previous century, urban Adelaide had grown nearly nine times and other towns of over a thousand people by nearly ten times. However, the rural population grew by only 1.25 times, despite the opening up of extensive new areas for settlement on Eyre Peninsula, in the Murray Lands, South East and the mining settlements of the Outback. Whereas the census of 1881 was made at the end of a period of rapid growth, the 1981 census came after five years of record slow growth when the rate of population increase fell to only 0.7% per annum.
It would need a brave commentator to identify those characteristics of speech, culture, social attitudes and behaviour which would distinguish present-day South Australians from Australians in general. Even though qualitative comparisons are elusive, the results of the 1981 census do allow some statistical comparisons. South Australians formed just under 9% of the Australian population, a percentage which has changed very little during the past century.
Compared with the Australian population as a whole, South Australia in 1981 had fewer people aged under five years and more aged over sixty-five years; it had a higher percentage of those born overseas, substantially more born in the British Isles and in continental Europe, but considerably few born in New Zealand, North America or Asia. In religion, South Australia had fewer Catholics and Anglicans but four times the national average share of Lutherans and twice the share of those describing themselves as Methodists or members of the Uniting Church. In a State whose founders advertised a tolerance for all religions, in 1981 South Australia had a higher than average percentage of those professing no religious beliefs.
South Australians are less mobile than the national population; fewer were overseas a year before the census was taken and in 1981 more South Australians than the national average were living in the same residence as five years earlier. South Australians were somewhat less affluent than Australians in general. They had a smaller percentage of households in the top census income bracket of $26,000 and above, and fewer households had four or more bedrooms.
In 1981 a higher proportion of South Australians was unemployed than Australians in general, although unemployment among South Australian women was below the national average. South Australians were less qualified than Australians in general, with a slightly smaller percentage holding degrees, diplomas and certificates beyond secondary school level. Fewer South Australians journey to work by train or on foot, but more than the national average went by bicycle. Those census characteristics in which South Australians most closely matched the national average included the proportion who owned their own houses, drove to work by car, were divorced, or declined to state their religion.
For most of the past century South Australian women have had fewer children than women in any other State. If South Australian fertility rates have been the lowest in Australia, life expectancy is better than average.
The 1981 census counted 1,285,033 persons in South Australia on 30 June including 3315 overseas visitors. After making allowance for South Australians who were absent from the State on the night of the census, the 'normal' resident population was estimated at 1,318,770 persons. Information gathered in the 1981 census for those areas of the State within local government boundaries generally known as the 'settled districts'. The remainder of the State is classified as 'unincorporated', and had 14,432 persons on the census night or 1.16% of the State total.
In 1947, on the eve of Australia's great post-war immigration boom, only 6.7% of the South Australian population was born overseas. By 1981 when the boom had ended the overseas born were 22.9% of the total South Australian population compared with 20.6% for Australia generally. Apart from Whyalla where 34.5% were born overseas, most migrants were attracted to metropolitan Adelaide. Adelaide, with a figure of 27.1% was second only to Perth among the Australian capital cities in the proportion of its overseas born population. Within Adelaide the percentage varied markedly, with low values in some of the older suburbs and high values of over 36% in the Para Hills, Salisbury and Elizabeth districts in the north. The larger country towns had higher values than the surrounding countryside and higher values usually occurred around the metropolitan fringe.
The two largest migrant groups to South Australia were those born in the United Kingdom and Ireland with 51.6% of the overseas born, and Italy with 16.6%. In Australia generally these groups constituted 37.7% and 9.2% respectively of the overseas born population. The highest ratios of those born in the United Kingdom and Ireland occurred in the outer suburbs, especially at the northern and southern extremities where the Housing Trust was particularly active in house building from the 1950s to the 1960s. During the years of high immigration of blue-collar workers the Trust maintained an office in London. Lower ratios occurred in some of the higher status western and southern suburbs. By contrast, the high concentrations of those born in Italy were almost entirely in the inner northern, north-eastern and north-western suburbs. In the north-east Italians were by far the dominant overseas-born group, whereas in the west they were but one component of an ethnically diverse population which included a high proportion of the South Australian Greek population.