4914.0.55.001 - Newsletter: Age Matters, Feb 2004  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 08/03/2004   
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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