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Newsletters - Age Matters - Issue Number 6, February 2004


Welcome to the first issue of Age Matters for 2004. Two important discussion papers were recently released by the Commonwealth Department of Treasury that highlight issues associated with the ageing of the population.

The first paper, Australia's Demographic Challenge identifies three main policy areas:
  • improvement in the capacity for work, through better education and health - that is, the need to improve and continually update skills and the need for a healthy lifestyle.
  • better incentives for work - proposing changes to the superannuation system and identifies the challenge of redesigning the current income support system.
  • improved flexibility in the workplace - that is, the need for more flexible arrangements in the workplace (e.g. part-time work) - removing the focus from early retirement or compulsory retirement.

The second discussion paper, A more flexible and adaptable retirement income system, highlights the need for people to plan and prepare for retirement. It outlines a number of key initiatives of changes to the superannuation system. Further information on the discussion papers can be found at

Current and planned NASU (and ABS) activities such as the Mature Age Persons Statistical Report will assist in providing data to address the issues highlighted in the discussion papers.

Other useful reading in this issue includes international trends in labour force participation and summary findings from the latest ABS General Social Survey (GSS). Some interesting facts from Census of Population and Housing: Australia in Profile - A Regional Analysis (cat. no. 2032.0) are also presented in this issue of Age Matters.

Maryann Wood

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Most people in Australia participate in the labour force at some stage in their lives, with paid employment of importance financially and personally. Labour force participation changes as people join or leave the labour force, and may be affected by other decisions such as combining work with study or family responsibilities. There is considerable interest in labour force participation from both a social and economic perspective. One particular issue is the ageing Australian population and the implications this may have for the size of the labour force. In the July 2003 issue of Australian Labour Market Statistics (cat. no. 6105.0), the article Population, Participation and Productivity: contributions to Australia's economic growth analysed the contribution of population demographics, labour force participation and productivity to the generation of economic growth (as measured by GDP).

The labour force participation rate is defined as the labour force (persons employed or unemployed) expressed as a percentage of the population.

Changes in Australia

Over the last two decades, Australia's labour force participation rate has increased slowly, rising from 60.8% in 1979 to 63.7% in 2002. The main factor behind the long-term rise in the labour force participation rate has been an increase in female participation, which has risen from 43.6% in 1979 to 55.5% in 2002. In contrast, male participation fell from 78.4% to 72.2% over the same period. Graph 1 shows male and female participation rates from 1979 to 2002.

Graph 1, Labour Force participation rateannual average: Australia
Graph: Graph 1, Labour Force participation rate—annual average: Australia

International comparison

To determine how trends in labour force participation in Australia compare with those elsewhere, a comparison was made with other countries that are similar to Australia in many ways (that is, with developed economies, and with similar cultures). The countries selected for this study were New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States of America and Canada. Data collated by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) were used.

In all these countries, as well as Australia, the participation rate for women increased over the period of the study (1986 to 2001), while the participation rate for men decreased (except for USA, where it increased). However, there were differences in the magnitude of the changes, and in the levels of participation, as shown in graph 2.

Graph 2, Labour force participation ratesselected countries
Graph: Graph 2, Labour force participation rates—selected countries

The USA had the highest participation rate overall in 2001 at 66.9%, with the participation rate for women considerably higher than most of the other countries shown, except for Canada. The participation rate of the UK was below that of the other countries. In part, this could reflect the older population in the UK - 19% of the population was aged 65 years and over, compared to between 15 and 16% in the other countries; while 14% of the UK population was aged between 15 and 24 years, compared to between 16% and 19% for the other countries (data are for 2002).

Comparison by age

Comparison of the countries by age shows that the patterns of participation were quite similar between countries for males across all age groups, while there were some differences through the life cycle for females. Graph 3 below shows participation rates for males in 2002, and graph 4 shows participation rates for females in 2002.

Graph 3, Labour force participation rates - selected countries: Males - 2002
Graph: Graph 3, Labour force participation rates—selected countries: Males—2002

Participation in the labour force is relatively high for men between age groups 20-24 years and 50-54 years in all countries. A slightly higher proportion of teenage males participate in the labour force in the UK than in other countries, while the proportion of men aged 50 and over participating in the labour force is highest in New Zealand.

Graph 4, Labour force participation rates - selected countries: Females - 2002
Graph: Graph 4, Labour force participation rates—selected countries: Females—2002

For women in Australia, there is a notable decrease in labour force participation in age groups 25-29 years to 35-39 years. This is not apparent to the same extent in the USA, UK or Canada. In New Zealand, the participation rate for women is relatively low for the age groups up to 30-34 years; it then rises, and is relatively high for the age groups 45-49 years and older.

In USA and Canada, the higher participation rates for women of child bearing ages lead to a higher labour force participation rate for women overall. However, in the UK, despite relatively high participation rates for women of child-bearing ages, the female participation rate is still lower overall than other countries, reflecting the older population in the UK.

The differences in participation rates between countries for women in child-bearing ages do not just reflect differences in the proportion of women who return to work soon after having children, but also differences in fertility rates, in availability of paid maternity leave, and in the treatment of maternity leave in labour force surveys. Generally, a woman on paid maternity leave would be treated in labour force surveys as being attached to a job, and hence employed, while a woman on unpaid maternity leave would be treated as not being attached to a job, and so not in the labour force. In some countries, women may be entitled to longer periods of paid maternity leave than in Australia, and so would be considered to be employed for a longer period, leading to higher participation rates in child-bearing years.

Participation in part-time employment

The nature of participation in the labour market, as assessed through the proportion of employees working part-time, differs considerably among the selected countries. The definition of 'part-time' varies between countries, but an OECD study has attempted to provide results on a comparable basis (based on a definition of part-time being less than 30 hours worked per week, while the standard definition used in Australia is based on a 35-hour cutoff). This analysis showed that Australia had a relatively high proportion of employees working part-time (27% in 2002), with the next highest rate being 23% in UK and New Zealand. The proportion of part-time employment had increased in all countries shown since 1986.

It was noted above that the overall rate of participation in the labour force is higher in the USA than the other four countries. The OECD data show that the nature of participation is also very different, with the proportion of employees working part-time in USA in 2002 (13%) less than half that in Australia (27%). The difference is greatest for women, with only 19% of female employees working part-time in the USA, compared to 40% in Australia and 39% in the UK.



New Zealand

OECD Labour Market Statistics; note that the OECD defines part-time work as "usual weekly working hours of 30 or less".

Further Information

For further information relating to data from the Labour Force Survey, please contact Peter Bradbury on Canberra 02 6252 6565 or email For further information relating to the analysis in this article, please contact Mark Webb on 02 6252 7323 or email

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The following selected findings have been taken from the ABS publication General Social Survey: Summary Results, Australia 2002 (cat. no. 4159.0), which was released on 18 December 2003.


Among the many, often inter-related, aspects of life that are important to human well-being are good health, good family relationships and engagements with wider social networks, good educational opportunities and outcomes, suitable employment, a decent income and freedom from financial stress, a decent and affordable place to live, feeling safe and secure, and having access to suitable transport. There is increasing recognition that many social phenomena are inter-related and social policy is becoming less sectoral as a consequence. The 2002 General Social Survey (GSS) is a new multidimensional social survey that ranges across all of these aspects of life to enable analysis of the interrelationship of social circumstances and outcomes, including the exploration of multiple disadvantage.

This article will highlight some of the insights that can be obtained from the 2002 GSS, looking at various aspects of well-being and how they might be related to each other.

Social attachment

Relationships and networks are at the core of society and are essential to individual well-being. People are linked together with family and friends, and in wider communities characterised by shared interests, sympathies or living circumstances. Individuals may also form looser networks with people encountered through various activities and life situations. A person's networks may be concentrated in a local area, or more dispersed and sustained by travel and communications systems. There is a growing exploration of the ways in which social attachment may contribute to positive outcomes for individuals in areas such as health and employment, and for communities in broader opportunities for participation and in safer environments.

Of the 14,503,000 people aged 18 years or over covered in the 2002 GSS, most (95%) reported having contact in the previous week (either in person or via telephone, mail or e-mail) with family or friends with whom they did not live and 93% reported they would be able to ask people outside of their household for small favours, such as looking after pets, collecting mail, watering gardens, minding a child for a brief period, or borrowing equipment.

The proportion of people reporting contact with family and friends in the last week was similar for both men and women and there was little variation across age groups. Of those people who had contact with family or friends in the last week, 88% did so in person, while an even greater proportion (95%) had contact via telephone, mail or e-mail. Less than one percent of people had no contact with family or friends in the last month.

Overall, there was no significant difference between men and women in terms of being able to ask others for small favours, although some variation between the sexes was evident by age, with all age groups for women reporting around 94%, except for those 75 years or over (90%) and men ranging from 91% (65-74 years) to 96% (35-44 years).

Most people (94%) reported that, in a time of crisis, they could get support from outside their household. While a similar proportion of men and women felt they had no support in time of crisis, the youngest age group for both sexes (18 to 24 year olds) were the least likely of all age groups to feel they had no support in a time of crisis. People reporting that they could get support indicated that support would come primarily from family members (88% of those who felt that they could get support) or friends (70%). Neighbours, work colleagues and various community, government and professional organisations were also reported as other potential sources of support. No significant differences were found between men and women for any of the sources of support reported.

Dot graph 1 - Sources of support in a time of crisis by sex

Community support

Many people provide support to the wider community by voluntary work through organisations. In the 2002 GSS, just over one-third of Australians reported undertaking some form of voluntary work in the previous 12 months. The rate of volunteering differed little between the sexes, but did differ with age, life cycle and location. People aged 35-44 years reported the highest rate of volunteering (42%). People in a couple relationship and with dependent children were more likely (42% of such persons) to volunteer than lone parents with children (30%). Volunteer rates were noticeably lower in the major cities (32%) than elsewhere (42%).

Crime and safety

The feelings people have of safety or lack of safety when alone at home often relate to their: perceptions of crime levels in their vicinity; previous experience as a victim of assault or household break-in; relationships with people living nearby; sense of their own strength and capacity to be in control; and their level of trust in their local community.

A large majority (82%) of people felt safe or very safe at home alone after dark. In contrast, 8% felt unsafe or very unsafe. The rest either were never at home alone after dark (2%) or felt neither safe nor unsafe (8%). Men were more likely (91%) to feel safe/very safe than women (72%). While men 75 years of age or over were the males least likely to feel safe/very safe (85%), among females, this age group was the most likely to feel safe/very safe (79%).

Line graph 7 - Feels very unsafe/unsafe at home alone after dark. By age and sex

The GSS showed that among those people more likely to feel unsafe at home alone after dark were those living in major cities, those living in rented accommodation, those not in the labour force and those living in low income households.

Personal stressors

Personal stressors are events or conditions that may adversely impact on an individual's life or the collective lives of families. A stressor may impact on an individual through direct experience, such as the individual suffering from a serious illness or being unable to find a job, or indirectly through a family member's illness or inability to find a job, or by the divorce or separation of parents. In some instances, the adverse impact of personal stressors may persist beyond the short term and have an ongoing impact on an individual's capacity to live a satisfying and productive life, or the capacity for a family to live as a fully functioning family unit.

The 2002 GSS collected information on several types of stressors that people considered had been a problem to themselves, their family and close friends in the last 12 months.

More than half (57%) of Australians aged 18 years or over experienced at least one potentially stressful situation or event in the last 12 months. The proportion of persons affected by stressors was around 60% for persons aged 18-54 years, falling to 46% for those aged 75 years or over.

The most common types of stressors were serious illness of self or someone close (reported by 21% of the population); and death of someone close (20%). Other frequent stressors experienced by the respondent or affecting someone close to them included: the inability to get a job (14%); divorce or separation (11%); mental illness (8%); and alcohol or drug related problems (8%).


Financial stress and income

The financial stress indicators and income data collected in the GSS (see tables 31 and 32) can provide insights into the economic well-being of various groups in the Australian community. Some of the financial stress questions required objective answers, but the interpretation of the responses as indicators of financial stress are subjective. Other questions are inherently subjective in nature. And while some of the indicators (such as seeking assistance from welfare/community organisations) appear to be more severe than others, such as 'could not pay electricity, gas or telephone bills on time' it is difficult to rank or weight them in order to derive a single measure of intensity of financial stress.

The reporting of financial stress does not necessarily imply that a household has low income. Even some high income households reported financial stressors. Nevertheless, comparing the income characteristics of those experiencing financial stress shows that those in the lowest income quintile (the bottom 20% of people ranked by equivalised household income) were less likely than other people to be able to raise money quickly for something important, more likely to have experienced cash flow problems in the last 12 months, and more likely than people in the top income quintile to have taken a dissaving action in the past 12 months. There was also a pattern of general decline in financial stress, measured by these indicators, as age increased.

Column graph 10 - Selected financial stress indicators, By equivalised household gross weekly income

Column graph 11 - Selected financial stress indicators, By age of selected person in household

Differing household composition was associated with different proportions of people reporting financial stress. For example, of the 630,000 lone parents with dependent children, 41% reported that they could not raise $2,000 in an emergency, compared with 13% of couples with dependent children; 48% of lone parents had at least one cash flow problem (22% for couples with dependent children); and 36% of lone parents took at least one dissaving action (23% for couples with dependent children). People who had retired from work and those employed in full-time jobs were the least likely to report financial stressors.

Health and disability

The majority of Australians (84% of persons aged 18 years or over) consider themselves to be in good, very good or excellent health. The proportion of persons reporting fair or poor health generally increased with age, from 7% of those in the 18-24 and 25-34 years age groups to 38% of those aged 75 years or over.

Line graph 12 - Self-assessed health status, By age

Personal health appears to be correlated with household income. Of those persons in the lowest quintile (i.e. the bottom 20% of people ranked by their equivalised gross household incomes), 35% assessed their health as fair or poor, compared to only 6% for those in the highest quintile. Of Australians aged 18 years or over, 40% (5,758,000 people) had a disability or long-term health condition with the rate increasing with age, from 23% of persons aged 18-24 years to 80% of persons aged 75 years or over. The proportion of people with a disability or long-term health condition involving one or more core activity limitations increased from 4% for those aged 18-24 years to 36% among those aged 75 years or over.

Line graph 13 - Disability or long-term health condition, By age and sex

The proportion of people who assessed their health as good or better and had no disability or long-term health condition was highest in the 18-24 year age group (74%), falling as age increased to only 19% in the 75 years or over age group.


Lack of access to transport due to problems of affordability, safety, availability, convenience, and appropriateness of the type of transport available can act as a barrier to people's participation in the range of social, civic and economic activities of mainstream society. Most people aged 18 years or over (84%) felt that they could easily get to the places where they needed to go; 12% felt that they sometimes had difficulty getting to such places; while 4% felt that they either could not get to places needed to go or often had difficulties in doing so.

Persons in the youngest age group (18 to 24 year olds) and the oldest age group (75 years or over) were the most likely to experience difficulties in getting access to motor vehicles or easily getting to places they needed to go.

Line graph 14 - Persons who can easily get to places needed, By age and sex

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In 2001,

  • some of the oldest populations in Australia were found in Queensland coastal areas.
  • almost one in five people were aged 65 years and over in the Sunshine Coast (Statistical Sub-Division, or SSD), compared to one in eight in Australia as a whole.
  • regions with higher than average proportions of older couples were found along the east coast of Australia in areas such as the Sunshine Coast (SSD) and the Redcliffe City (SSD) in Queensland.
  • South Australia's population had the highest median age (38 years) of any state or territory.
  • almost one-third of households in Western Adelaide (SSD) were lone person households, well above the Australian average of 24%.
  • the Northern Territory had some of the highest rates of attendance at a University or TAFE among people aged 35 years or older in Australia. At 6%, Darwin (SD) had the highest rate of all mixed urban/rural regions presented in the report, with the Balance of the Northern Territory (SD) slightly lower at 5%.

Further details are in Census of Population and Housing: Australia in Profile - A regional analysis (cat. no. 2032.0). This publication was released on 16 January 2004 and presents commentary and data on a number of key social indicators from the 2001 Census, with the focus on regional distribution and comparisons. Topics covered include cultural diversity, living arrangements, education, work and housing.

This publication is available from this website.

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The Globalisation, Families and Work Conference will be held between 1-2 April 2004 in Brisbane. The Conference is a forward-looking conference which seeks to examine the policy options, ideas and underlying values that inform work and family issues. One of the keynote speakers will be the Australian Statistician, Dennis Trewin of the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The Conference focuses on the themes which reflect long-term and ongoing changes in the social and economic structures of our society. It will also consider the long-term consequences of these issues and the possible impact of policy settings. The themes are:

  • Perspectives on the future of Australian families and work: what are the trends telling us?
  • The economics of caring
  • Changing families
  • How society chooses - policy and values, past and future
  • How society chooses - where does well-being fit in.

Conference details and registration are available via

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The 18th World Conference on Health Promotion and Health Education will be held between 26-30 April 2004 in Melbourne. More than 2000 delegates are expected, representing governments, major international organisations and foundations, community groups, public health organisations, medical professionals and many others. The conference is auspiced by the International Union for Health Promotion and Education (IUHPE), based in Paris, and the conference will also host the triennial General Assembly of the IUHPE members. Support for the conference also comes from the World Health Organisation and the Australian and Victorian (state) governments.

Conference details and on-line registration are available via the Health 2004 web site

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Australian Census Analytic Program: The Micro-Dynamics of Change in Australian Agriculture: 1976-2001 (cat. no. 2055.0) was released on 9 February 2004. This report is about the changing demographic structure of the Australia's farming community. It examines patterns of entry to agriculture and exit from agriculture, and uses these to build a simple model of the farm sector. The model is used to project possible future farming population structures.

Further details are in Australian Census Analytic Program: The Micro-Dynamics of Change in Australian Agriculture: 1976-2001 (cat. no. 2055.0). For further enquiries please contact Neil Barr on (03) 5430 4439.

Job Search Experience, Australia, July 2003 (cat. no. 6222.0) was released on 3 February 2004. This publication provides estimates of unemployed persons classified by difficulties in finding work, duration of current period of unemployment, whether would move interstate or intrastate if offered a suitable job, active steps taken to find work, whether looking for full-time or part-time work, educational attainment, number of spells of looking for work in the previous 12 months. Estimates can also be cross-classified by labour force demographics such as state, sex, age, marital status and birthplace.

This survey also provides estimates of 'successful jobseekers', i.e. persons who were formerly jobseekers but were now (as at the survey reference period) employed and were successful in securing that job in the previous 12 months. Estimates can also be cross-classified by labour force demographics such as state, sex, age, marital status and birthplace.

Further details are in Job Search Experience, Australia (cat. no. 6222.0) or contact the Labour Force section on (02) 6252 7206.

General Social Survey, Summary Results, Australia, 2002 (cat. no. 4159.0) was released on 21 January 2004. This publication presents summary results from the 2002 General Social Survey (GSS). The GSS brings together a wide range of information from different areas of social concern. Topics include health, housing, education, work, income, financial stress, assets and liabilities, transport, family and community, and crime. This product includes summary tables for different population groups and selected themes, together with more detailed cross classified tables covering selected topics. Tables are also available for each state and territory via this website.

Further details are in General Social Survey, Summary Results, Australia, 2002 (cat. no. 4159.0).

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Ageing theme page containing ageing-relevant information from the ABS and other Commonwealth Government agencies has been added to the ABS web site. The Ageing theme page highlights the type and range of data available for ageing analyses and will be updated to highlight new data releases as they become available.

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Ron Casey
Telephone: (07) 3222 6312
    Assistant Director
    Maryann Wood
    Telephone: (07) 3222 6206
    Mailing address
    National Ageing Statistics Unit (NASU)
    Australian Bureau of Statistics
    GPO Box 9817, BRISBANE QLD 4001

    Fax: (07) 3222 6283

    Commonwealth of Australia 2008

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