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The changing face of Australia


8 December 2021 at 2:47 pm
Nikki Stefanoff
The 20th edition of the annual Household, Income and Labour Dynamic Australia Survey gives an in-depth look at how the lives of Aussies have changed over the last 20 years. 


Nikki Stefanoff | 8 December 2021 at 2:47 pm


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The changing face of Australia
8 December 2021 at 2:47 pm

The 20th edition of the annual Household, Income and Labour Dynamic Australia Survey gives an in-depth look at how the lives of Aussies have changed over the last 20 years. 

After two years of global uncertainty, it might come as a surprise to hear that Australia is becoming more prosperous as a nation. Yet, the latest Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey found just that.

Now in its 20th year, the HILDA survey tells the stories of the same group of Australians over the course of their lives. Over the last two decades, researchers have interviewed the same 17,500 people from 9,500 households. Their answers provide a unique window into how our social and economic circumstances continue to change. 

It’s worth noting that the latest HILDA report uses data from 2019, and so doesn’t address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic – the after-effects of which will become clearer in next year’s report. 

Professor Roger Wilkins, deputy director of the HILDA Survey Project at the University of Melbourne and author of the report, said that this year’s survey reveals a relatively stable and well-functioning society marked by lower levels of poverty and financial stress, a lower impact from crime and increasingly tolerant and progressive societal attitudes.

“The results from HILDA provide a real counterpoint to the sense of gloom that can sometimes overwhelm contemporary views of the present,” Wilkins said. 

“For example, while you can argue about whether inequality is too high or not in Australia, HILDA shows that the actual level of income inequality has been remarkably stable over the last 20 years.” 

Australia’s economic well being and income inequality

In the 20 years since HILDA’s research started, there’s been little change in income equality, however, household income has slowed over the last 10 years after jumping 28 per cent between 2011 and 2009. Since then Australian incomes have grown by just six per cent. 

Professor Wilkins stated that HILDA is clearly telling the story of two decades. 

“In the first 10 years of the century incomes rose strongly amid the resources boom, but since then living standards have stagnated,” he said. “And that stagnation has in part been perpetuated by policy complacency.”


Read more: Low-income Aussies are being completely priced out of the rental market, new research reveals 

We need to do better for single parents and young Australians

It wasn’t all good news, however. This year’s survey demonstrated that as a society we need to do a lot more to support single parents – 20 per cent of single parents are living in poverty compared to just 4.5 per cent of coupled parents. 

It also showed that young Australians are taking longer to leave home and finding it harder to make the transition to financial independence. Full-time work is harder to find, and buying a house is looking increasingly difficult – the pandemic is likely to have only made this worse. 

The rise in working mothers and the emotional labour of women

When HILDA started in 2001, researchers found that in 60 per cent of couple-parent families with dependent children both parents were working. Two decades later that proportion has increased to 71 per cent, and those families using childcare are paying, on average, $75 a week more than they were in 2001. 

While women are working more, they are also doing significantly more unpaid work (housework and caring) than men. 

Among heterosexual couples with dependent children, HILDA found that women were doing 21 hours more a week of unpaid work than men. A number that sounds high but is actually down from the 29 hours a week reported in 2002. 

Homeownership, levels of debt and psychological distress

As the country’s house prices continue to rise it’s not surprising that HILDA found that the percentage of people who own their own home has decreased (from 69 per cent in 2001 to 65 per cent) and debt levels have more than doubled. From $168,300 in 2001 to $355,400 in 2019. 

There’s also been a startling increase in mental health issues, with 23 per cent of women and 19 per cent of men reporting psychological distress. That figure’s up by 30 per cent since 2007 and doesn’t include the difficulties faced by many Aussies over the last two years. 

Indigenous women were more likely to experience psychological distress than non-Indigenous women, and people who had migrated from non-English speaking countries were more likely to experience mental health issues than people born in Australia.

Dr Ferdi Botha, an academic from Melbourne Institute Applied Economic and Social Research, said that employment, economic wellbeing and regular social contact were clear determinants of psychological well being.

“As your income goes up, your likelihood of psychological distress decreases,” he said. 

“And, compared to those who see family and friends every three months at most, people who see family and friends at least once per week are about 10 percentage points less likely to experience psychological distress.”

The most current survey is now underway, and as it will include the years spent in and out of lockdowns and dealing with the global health crisis, will provide a real snapshot of how COVID-19 affected our lives.

Other key findings from the report

  • Australia’s richest are more likely to remain in the highest wealth bracket now than at the beginning of the century – for those in the highest-earning group, the proportion who remained in the top bracket rose from 70.3 per cent in the 2001-2006 period to 74 per cent in 2013-2018.
  • Obesity is rising with 59 per cent of people overweight or obese, up from 54 per cent in 2006.
  • Since 2001 the proportion of Australians smoking daily has fallen significantly from nearly 19 per cent to now 11 per cent. 
  • The proportion of people drinking alcohol five or more days a week is down from 15 per cent in 2002 to 11 per cent.
  • The proportion of survey respondents reporting they were the victim of property crime in the previous year has dropped from 6.7 per cent in 2002 to 2.7 per cent in 2019.
  • The number of people experiencing violent crime from 2 per cent in 2002 to 1.2 per cent in 2019.

You can read the full report here


Nikki Stefanoff  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

Nikki Stefanoff is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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