Finance Work The Aussie households drifting back to the 1970s

The Aussie households drifting back to the 1970s

Australians might be moving to a more 1970s lifestyle.
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The two sets of jobs figures released last week tell the same story, though with differing degrees of urgency.

The less alarming version comes from the Bureau of Statistics, which headlined its release ‘Trend employment growth continues’.

That’s good isn’t it?

Well not really. The ‘continuing’ growth is way below what’s needed.

The problem is that the workforce keeps growing more quickly than work opportunities.

In the year to the end of July, the workforce grew by about 2.6 per cent, whereas the number of hours worked was up by just one-twentieth of one per cent (0.05 per cent) in trend terms.

So even the least alarming data shows a growing mismatch between people wanting to work, and the hours available to them.

The scary version

The more alarming figures, published by Roy Morgan Research, show the problem more starkly.

Roy Morgan does not consider a person employed if they’ve worked just an odd hour or two during the survey period.

And so its headline unemployment rate is much higher than the 5.7 per cent recorded by the ABS.

It puts unemployment at 10.5 per cent, and considers a further 9 per cent of workers to be under-employed, by which it means working fewer hours than they’d like.

This it puts down to the ongoing shift to part-time work. It notes: “Full-time employment fell 217,000 to 7,683,000 from July 2015, while part-time employment was up 283,000 to 3,959,000.”

Living in the 70s

What does all this mean for the economy?

Firstly, it is far from unexpected. The jobs boost brought by the mining boom passed its high-water mark in late 2011, at which time the terms of trade and the Aussie dollar began to track lower.

Until the lower dollar – which is still too high, by the way – works to boost non-mining exports, it’s unlikely that domestic investment and consumption will generate enough work.

The rise in part-time workers, therefore, is here to stay – possibly for good.

Around the world, developed nations are finding an imbalance between the number of available workers, and the demand for labour.

A lot of that is down to long-term increases in labour productivity, including the trend towards automation of human tasks.

In the longer term, that means the number of hours worked by bread-winners in each households will fall.

Female workforce participation surged in the 1970s. Photo: Getty.
Female workforce participation surged in the 1970s. Photo: Getty

That might sound familiar to couples who were working in the early 1970s.

Back then the social tumult of the 1960s, particularly the change to female fertility brought about by the contraceptive pill, was starting to work its way into the jobs figures.

Over four decades, female workforce participation nearly doubled to peak at 60 per cent in 2012.

Male participation declined over the same years, from 82 per cent to 72 per cent, but because of the higher female participation the hours worked per household increased substantially.

The difference now is that both men and women are finding themselves stuck in part-time jobs when they’d prefer longer hours.

If this trend continues, some profound shifts in the economy will become apparent.

The most noticeable will be in the housing market.

By the same logic, if the hours worked per household falls, mortgages will have to be smaller in future – another factor likely to bring house-price stagnation or falls.

The one-car family of the 1970s had far less material wealth. Photo: Getty.
The one-car family of the 1970s had far less material wealth. Photo: Getty

More part-time work, if a permanent trend, would mean lower demands on the stretched childcare system as parents spend more time in childcare at home.

And demand for other time-saving services – from bought lunches to car detailing and service-wash laundries – may also suffer.

That might make it sound like we’re going back to the one-car family of the 1970s, spam sandwiches for lunch, blokes wearing nylon footy shorts and thongs to weekend barbies, and sheilas daintily sipping cask rosé.

Actually, that’s not quite right.

As last year’s Intergenerational Report noted: “For every hour average Australians work today, they produce twice as many goods and services as they did in the early 1970s.”

Less hours worked may means less material wealth, but not back to a 1970s level.

The societal shift towards more part-time work is being felt across developed nations and if long-lasting, will require big changes. But if managed well, they don’t all have to be for the worse.

Read more columns by Rob Burgess here

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