1370.0 - Measuring Australia's Progress, 2002  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 19/06/2002   
   Page tools: Print Print Page Print all pages in this productPrint All  
Contents >> The supplementary commentaries >> Work: Looking more closely

The headline commentary focussed on changes in levels of labour underutilisation. This commentary looks more closely at differences in levels of labour force participation and underutilisation among selected population groups, as well as some of the changes that have occurred in employment arrangements.

Significant economic and social changes over recent decades have altered the way in which work is organised and carried out. There have also been changes in the composition of the workforce, and in pay and other employment conditions and the way these are set. Some of these changes have been reflected in the rapid growth in part-time and casual employment, the emergence of different employment arrangements, the increase in working hours and the general rise in unemployment. The impact of these changes has not been uniform across the various subgroups within the population.


As with their increasing participation in education and training, Australian women have taken a more active role in the labour force than was the case two decades ago. The labour force participation rate for women increased from 46% in 1985 to 54% in 1995 and 55% in 2001. In contrast, the participation rate for men decreased from 76% in 1985 to 74% in 1995 and 72% in 2001.

Unemployment rates among men and women have also changed relative to each other. The rates for women were lower than those for men throughout the 1990s, whereas in previous decades they had been higher. Women accounted for 44% of total employment in 2001, compared with 38% in 1985.

The increase in women's participation in employment has been strongly associated with an increase in part-time work, with women accounting for the majority of part-time workers (72% in 2001). Although most of the workers in part-time employment prefer part-time work to full-time work, 5.3% of female part-time workers and 13.4% of male part-time workers preferred to work full-time and were actively looking for full-time work in August 2001.


Although this section focuses on people in or seeking paid employment, a great deal of the work done in Australia is done outside the market economy as unpaid work. In 1997, an estimated 19.3 billion hours of unpaid housework and unpaid volunteer and community work were undertaken in Australia. ABS estimates put the value of this work at $261b, which was equivalent to 48% of GDP.(SEE FOOTNOTE 1) Most of this was attributable to housework (91%) and a large share of it represented work undertaken by women (65%).

While there was an increase in the number of unpaid hours worked between 1992 and 1997 (up by 0.4 billion hours), the value of unpaid work relative to the GDP declined (down from 52% of GDP in 1992). The decline was partly due to the rapid increase in demand for labour in the market economy, so that relatively more work was done on a paid rather than an unpaid basis. Also wage rates for jobs such as housework (on which estimates of the value of unpaid work are based) did not grow as substantially as wage rates for higher skilled jobs. Other factors, such as rapid growth in technological innovation and the changing size and composition of households, may have also had some effect on the value of unpaid work.

Unemployment rates, by sex
Graph - Unemployment rates, by sex

Unemployment rates, by age group and education status
Graph - Unemployment rates, by age group and education status

Unemployment rates, States and Territories
with the highest rates in 2001

Graph - Unemployment rates, States and Territories with the highest rates in 2001

Unemployment rates, States and Territories with the lowest rates in 2001Graph - Unemployment rates, States and Territories with the lowest rates in 2001


Levels of involvement in the paid workforce vary through life cycle stages, initially increasing with age as young people move from education and training (often combined with part-time work) into full-time jobs, then remaining relatively high during prime working ages, and then declining towards the years of retirement. Participation in the labour force is interrupted for many women as they take time out to raise young families. However, the patterns of labour force participation of women are increasingly becoming more like those of men.(SEE FOOTNOTE 2)

The likelihood of being unemployed is also partly related to life cycle stages. In particular, the unemployment rate tends to be highest among youth (i.e. those aged 15-24 years), who typically have less developed work-related skills than older people. Many young people are studying full-time, preparing for future employment, and some of these are also looking for part-time or full-time work. The difficulties that many young adults can have in finding paid work are highlighted by comparing the unemployment rates of those aged 20-24 years who were not full-time tertiary education students with those for people aged 25 years and over (10.1% and 5.1% respectively in 2001). These differences were apparent throughout the 1990s, with the unemployment rate for those aged 20-24 years who were not full-time tertiary education students being approximately twice that of people aged 25 years and over.


When compared with the rest of Australia's population, Indigenous Australians have substantially lower levels of labour force participation and substantially higher levels of unemployment. Data from the 1996 Census of Population and Housing showed that the labour force participation rate among Indigenous people at that time was 53% (compared to 62% for non-Indigenous people) and that the unemployment rate for Indigenous people was 23% (compared to 9% for non-Indigenous people). Experimental estimates of Indigenous employment and unemployment since 1996 suggest that the unemployment rate among Indigenous Australians remains more than twice the rate for non-Indigenous Australians, and the Indigenous labour force participation rate remains substantially below that for Australia as a whole.(SEE FOOTNOTE 3)


Opportunities for work vary across Australia with the nature and strength of the economic base and the relative growth of industries from place to place. This may reflect the fact that some places have been more adversely affected than others by restructuring within the economy, and in particular the move away from traditional manufacturing to service industries. Other factors, including the population's age composition and growth, and the occupation and skill base of residents, can influence regional differences.(SEE FOOTNOTE 4)

Among the States and Territories, Tasmania consistently had the highest unemployment rate throughout the 1990s. But, as with each of the other States and the Territories, unemployment rates have generally declined through the 1990s. In 2001, the States with the highest annual average unemployment rates were Tasmania, South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory.


People's feelings of job security are thought to be closely linked to changes in the level of unemployment.(SEE FOOTNOTE 5) This may be a consequence of people seeing other employees being retrenched or made redundant. As might be expected, the retrenchment rate moves similarly to the unemployment rate through each economic cycle and has generally declined through the mid to late 1990s. In the 12 months from March 1999 to February 2000, some 384,600 people had been retrenched or made redundant. This number represented 4.0% of all people who had been employed during the same period, a proportion considerably below that recorded in the 12 months from March 1990 to February 1991 (6.5%) before the peak of the last recession. However, the fall that occurred during the 1990s was slower than that which occurred through the 1980s following the recession in the earlier part of that decade.

Unemployment and retrenchment rates
Graph - Unemployment and retrenchment rates


There has been strong growth in casual employment over the last two decades. Casual employees are those who are entitled to neither paid holiday leave nor paid sick leave.(SEE FOOTNOTE 6) The proportion of male employees who are casual employees has almost doubled, increasing from 13% in 1990 to 23% in 2000. Over the same period, the proportion of female casual employees increased from 28% to 32%. These changes, which occurred in association with rapid growth in employment in service industries, can be viewed by many employers and employees as beneficial. For example, for people employed in such jobs, often women and younger people, the flexibility associated with such arrangements may suit their particular needs. But the extent to which people's preferences for alternative work arrangements are not being satisfied also needs to be considered.

Casual employees(a)
Graph - Casual employees(a)


There has been a trend away from full-time hours confined to daytime weekday hours towards more diverse arrangements.(SEE FOOTNOTE 7) The increased availability of part-time work has provided flexibility for people to balance work with family responsibilities, participation in education, or transition to retirement. The proportion of employed people working part-time increased from 22% in 1991 to 27% in 2001. But not all part-time workers are working their preferred number of hours, with one in four part-time workers (26%) preferring to work more hours in August 2001. This compares with 13% of part-time workers who preferred to work more hours in August 1981 and 24% in August 1991.

The average number of hours worked by full-time workers, and the proportion of full-time workers who work long hours, have also increased in recent decades. Average hours worked by full-time workers in August 1991 stood at 41.1 hours, compared with 42.6 hours in August 1995 and 42.3 hours in August 2001. The proportion of full-time workers who worked 50 hours or more increased between 1991 and 2001, from 21.1% to 23.7%, while the proportion of full-time workers who worked very long hours (60 hours or more), increased from 10.8% to 11.3% over that same period.

People in part-time jobs and jobs with longer hours
Graph - People in part-time jobs and jobs with longer hours

Average hours per week, full-time workers(a)
Graph - Average hours per week, full-time workers(a)


1 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2000, Unpaid Work and the Australian Economy, 1997, Cat. no. 5240.0, ABS, Canberra.

2 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1999, "Labour Force Projections: 1999-2016", in Labour Force Australia, October 1999, Cat. no. 6203.0, ABS, Canberra.

3 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2000, Labour Force Characteristics of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, Cat. no. 6287.0, ABS, Canberra.

4 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, "Unemployment trends and patterns", in Australian Social Trends 2001, Cat. no. 4102.0, ABS, Canberra.

5 Borland, J. 2001, "Job stability and job security", in Borland, Gregory and Sheehan (eds), Work Rich, Work Poor: Inequality and economic change in Australia, Victoria University, Victoria.

6 Employees are those who work for a public or private employer and receive remuneration in wages, salary, or are paid a retainer fee by their employer and work on a commission basis, tips or piece rates, or operate their own incorporated enterprise with or without hiring employees.

7 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1999, "Decline of the standard working week ", in Australian Social Trends 1999, Cat. no. 4102.0, ABS, Canberra.

Previous PageNext Page