How we’ve changed in 20 years

| December 8, 2021

How has life changed for Australians over the last twenty years? Are we better off? Are we healthier? How has family life changed? How have our attitudes changed?

The Household Income and Labour Dynamics (HILDA) Survey, administered by the University of Melbourne and now in its 20th year, is the only national survey tracking the life courses of Australians. The researchers go back to interview the same Australians each year, over 17,000 of them, providing a unique window on how our social and economic circumstances are changing.

“It is the only nationally representative data source we have that provides rich information on the pathways people are taking, providing insights into what led them to where they are and helping us to understand what’s changing and what may be driving the changes,” says Professor Roger Wilkins, deputy director of the HILDA Survey Project at the University of Melbourne.

Overall he says HILDA reveals a relatively stable and well-functioning society over the last 20 years marked by lower levels of poverty and financial stress, a lower impact from crime and increasingly tolerant/progressive attitudes.“The results from HILDA provide a real counterpoint to the sense of gloom that can sometimes overwhelm contemporary views of the present,” he says.

“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,” says Professor Wilkins.

“But that isn’t to say that everything is fine. In particular, HILDA shows that as a society we could be doing a lot better by single parents.

According to HILDA, 20 per cent of single parents are in poverty compared with just 4.5 per cent of coupled parents.

“It also shows that young people are facing a more daunting time with the transition into financial independence, and the economic challenges from the pandemic will make that worse. Young people are taking longer to leave home and secure full-time work, and house prices are looking more out of reach.”

The current survey is now underway and will provide a crucial snapshot of how COVID-19 has affected our collective lives. Professor Wilkins says the crisis and understanding its social and economic impact could be a “circuit breaker” for much needed policy reform.

“HILDA over the last 20 years has told a 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, and that stagnation has in part been perpetuated by policy complacency,” says Professor Wilkins.For example, he argues a lack of investment in infrastructure has only started to be addressed recently, and tax reforms aimed at taxing labour less and property more are overdue.

So, what does HILDA tell us about how we’ve changed over the last 20 years?

We are clearly smoking much less. Since 2001 the proportion of Australians smoking daily has fallen significantly from nearly 19 per cent to now 11 per cent. There are also signs we may be drinking less regularly – the proportion of people drinking alcohol five or more days a week is down from 15 per cent in 2002 to 11 per cent.

But despite those positive signs, obesity is rising with 59 per cent of people over-weight or obese, up from 54 per cent in 2006.

And the extent to which we are exercising doesn’t appear to have changed in the last two decades despite the growing fashion for sportswear. Just over a third of us exercise for at least 30 minutes three or more times a week, but not every day, and that is virtually unchanged from 2001.Also unchanged is the proportion of us doing very little. About 13 per cent report never exercising for at least 30 minutes each week. And the proportion of us exercising for at least 30 minutes every day is actually slightly down from nearly 14 per cent in 2001 to 12 per cent now.

HILDA also shows that Australians are increasingly vulnerable to psychological distress. The proportion of adults measured by surveys to be a high or very high risk of psychological distress has soared by about 30 per cent between 2007 and 2019, with women particularly more vulnerable.

The proportion of women at high or very high risk has risen from 17.7 per cent to just over 23 per cent, while the proportion of at-risk men has risen from 15 per cent to 19.4 per cent.

HILDA points to a dramatic fall in property crime like theft and break-ins in the last 20 years. 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.

There has also been a drop in the proportion of people experiencing violent crime from 2 per cent in 2002 to 1.2 per cent in 2019.

HILDA respondents report a drop in both property and violent crime. However more Australians in HILDA are reporting that they feel they are discriminated against on the basis of gender, age, ethnicity, religion or parental status when applying for a job. In 2008 about 7.3 per cent of respondents reported some sort of job discrimination in the last two years, and that had risen to 8 per cent by 2018.

When it comes to how we live, one of the starkest changes over the last two decades has been the rise in the number of working mothers.

In 2001, both parents were working in about 60 per cent of couple-parent families with dependent children. But that proportion has now increased to 71 per cent.

Probably reflecting the increased time mothers are spending in paid work, the proportion of families with pre-school children using childcare has almost doubled from 28 per cent to 53 per cent. And among those families using childcare, the average real spending on childcare (in 2019 dollars) has risen from $A130 a week in 2001 to $A205 a week.

The proportion of women working has risen from 53 per cent in 2001 to now 60 per cent, but women still tend to work fewer hours a week than men (32 hours versus 40 hours), and for less pay. On an hourly wages basis the HILDA data suggests that the gender pay gap has actually widened between 2001 and 2019 from 8.6 per cent to 9.4 per cent.

And while women are working more, within the family women continue to do significantly more unpaid work (house work and caring) than men.

There has been a significant rise in the number of working mothers, but women continue to do more house work and caring.Among different sex couples with dependent children, the woman is doing 21 hours more a week of unpaid work than the man, though that has narrowed significantly from 29 hours more in 2002.This narrowing is being driven by a combination of men taking on a bit more of the work, and by women simply doing less unpaid work – possibly reflecting the wider use of childcare as women increase their work hours.

On average men in these families have increased their unpaid work from 24.7 hours to 27.8 hours a week, while unpaid work by women has fallen from 53.5 hours to 48.7 hours a week.

We’re also spending more on eating out rather than cooking at home. While household grocery spending has dropped 11 per cent since 2001, our spending on eating out has risen by 23 per cent.

Another big social change is the increase in university qualifications. In 2001 about 27 per cent of Australian aged 25-34 had a university degree, but that has now increased to close to 40 per cent.

The increase in degrees may be contributing to the delay in young Australians achieving independence, that is revealed in HILDA. Young Australians are staying home longer with their parents with about half of Australians aged 18-29 now still living at home, up from 41 per cent in 2001.

And in their first year out in the job market after full time education – the rate at which young Australians have secured full time work – has fallen from around 52 per cent in 2001 to 45 per cent now.

Rates of casual work are little changed over the last 20 years, with just under 25 per cent of employees employed casually in 2001 compared to 22 per cent now. However rates of casualisation are highest among the 15-24 age group at 56 per cent, and that is up from 51 per cent in 2001.

Older Australians meanwhile are working for longer. At the start of the century a man’s average retirement age was around 62, but that has now risen to 67. Among women the retirement age has risen from 61 to 65.

HILDA shows that social attitudes towards marriage and parenting are becoming more progressive. The most striking shift since 2001 is the growing acceptance of the rights of same sex couples.

Attitudes in HILDA are measured on a 7-point scale with a score over 4 indicating agreement with a particular survey statement. In 2005 Australian men generally disagreed with the statement that same sex couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples (score 3.3) but that has now turned around to clear agreement (score 5.2).

Among women in 2005 there was mild agreement (score 4.1) that same-sex couples had the same rights, but that has now swung to strong agreement (score 5.6).

Australians are also more accepting of a women’s decision to be a single parent (men and women’s attitudes changing from mild disagreement with the statement that it is alright for a woman to have a child as a single parent, to now clear agreement).

Men and women still tend to agree with the notion that children are happiest with both a father and mother, but the strength of that opinion has weakened (score now 4.2 among women down from 5.1, and among men 5.1, down from 5.8).
Drop in religious affiliation

This rise in more progressive attitudes to marriage and family has been accompanied by a steep rise in the proportion of Australians dropping any religious affiliation. In 2004, some 25 per cent of HILDA respondents reported having no religious affiliation, but that has now risen to almost 40 per cent.

Economically, HILDA shows that households are generally better off with incomes rising and poverty and financial distress down over the last two decades.

In 2001 almost 17 per cent of people experienced at least two indicators of financial distress – like not being able to make a mortgage repayment, or being unable to pay a utility bill, or having to skip meals for example – but that has now fallen to 11 per cent.

While rates of financial distress have fallen, about 11 per cent of people still reported experiencing at least two indicators of financial stress, like not being able to pay a utility bill.

There has also been a slight decline in the proportion of people living in relative poverty from 12 per cent in 2001 to 11 per cent now.

Income inequality has also been stable. The Gini Co-efficient is a statistical measure of income inequality where a score of 0 means everyone has the same income and a score of one means one person has all the income.

In Australia, the Gini coefficient has remained firmly between 0.29 and 0.31 since 2001.But household disposable income growth has stagnated in the last ten years. While average incomes jumped by 28 per cent between 2001 and 2009, since then incomes have grown by only just 6 per cent.

That stagnation has fuelled the concerns about housing affordability amid the continued boom in property values. HILDA shows home owners’ debt levels have more than doubled in real terms (2019 dollars) from $A168,300 in 2001 to $A355,400 in 2019.

Levels of home ownership meanwhile have dropped slightly – some 65 per cent of households now live in an owner-occupied home, down from 69 per cent in 2001.