4160.0 - Measuring Wellbeing: Frameworks for Australian Social Statistics, 2001  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 12/10/2001   
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Contents >> Chapter 6: Work >> Social issues

Social issues


The life cycle context of individuals, and their preferences in relation to this, will determine the degree to which work affects their wellbeing, and the kinds of work related issues that are relevant to them. In other words, people may prefer a variety of different working arrangements across their life cycle to cater to the demands of education, family and health. Many issues of interest in the area of work involve the analysis of employment and socioeconomic context in relation to life cycle transitions. For instance, questions of interest include:

  • are students working in part-time or in casual jobs going on to obtain full-time permanent employment in their prime working years?
  • are parents able to successfully re-enter the paid workforce after a time away caring for children?
  • are unemployed people able to find work and then maintain this over time?
  • are workers fully equipped to make the transition from work to retirement?

Many of these kinds of issues, and issues relating to early retirement, lifetime income and income dispersion, intergenerational equity and stepping stones to work can be usefully informed by longitudinal studies, as opposed to cross-sectional time series.


Significant changes in the nature of work, and in working arrangements, have occurred over the last few decades, and these changes provide context for many of the social and policy issues currently surrounding paid work. Shifts in the types of industries that provide the bulk of employment opportunities for people have changed the types of skills that are in demand. This has affected employment opportunities for particular groups, and reduced opportunities for people whose skills have become outmoded. For example, during the last thirty years nearly all employment growth has been within service industries. Even within traditional industries, technological change has meant new skills, such as computing and communication skills, have gained in importance, adding to a shift away from manual skills toward office based skills.


Career pathways have also undergone change. Where previously many workers trained for a single profession or vocation, and expected to have a job for life, people can now expect to change careers more often in their lifetime, and may need to re-train on several occasions, either in order to begin new careers, or to remain up-to-date within their existing career. Traditional seniority based pathways have given way to career pathways involving performance based progression, lateral movement within organisations, or movement between vocations and organisations. These changes, and a reduced emphasis on vocation in the labour market, have affected the way in which people gain and maintain employment, and the kinds of social and personal skills people accumulate.


Changes in the number of hours people work, in the average length of the working week and the amount of shift work people do have also occurred. With increases both in the number of people who are working fewer hours, and in the number of people working longer hours, there are concerns that the workforce could polarise into low income, part-time workers who want to work more hours, and overworked full-time workers suffering ill health, fatigue and a deteriorating quality of working and family life.


Associated with shifts in industry and social structures, there have been increases in casual, contract and part-time work. For instance, part-time and casual work characterise service industry jobs and are often preferred by women, who form a far greater proportion of the workforce than previously. While potentially providing greater bargaining power to workers and new freedoms to people seeking flexible working arrangements, the emergence of short term and precarious working arrangements may also affect people's capacity to ensure their own and their family's financial security.


While the changes in the working environment outlined above have been associated with rapid and continuous change in technology, and with changes in social attitudes, they have also been linked to labour market deregulation. The restructuring of Australia's industrial relations system has changed the roles of the institutions that regulate work, in particular, those that regulate working conditions, work practices, and wage determination. Traditionally workers' pay was set out in industry awards, and pay rises and working conditions were negotiated through trade union organisations. Now far fewer awards exist, and there has been a rapid decline in trade union membership, partly reflecting industry restructuring away from well unionised sectors. Enterprise and other decentralised bargaining has spread and there is now an increasing number of employees whose working conditions and wages are regulated by an enterprise or individual agreement.

The social implications (whether positive or negative) of labour market deregulation are of interest to government and the community. For example, movement away from centralised wage determination may affect the dispersal of earnings between industries and within occupations, possibly leading to income inequalities. On the other hand, the opportunities presented by labour market deregulation may result in an overall growth in earnings. Increases in casual, contract and temporary employment jobs creates a potential for reduced job security and may affect the type and number of benefits available to workers. However, a greater range of choice in working arrangements may mean the preferences of some workers are more readily met. Employment benefit arrangements may change in more conventional employment arrangements which have been deregulated, again with the potential for both positive and negative implications for workers. There is also an interest in whether or how productivity gains from a deregulated labour market can be sustained, in changes in the type and level of industrial disputation, and in the changing role of trade unions.


The areas of work and education and training can influence one another significantly. For example, increased education retention rates can have the effect of reducing the number of young people working or seeking full-time work. Similarly, reduced employment opportunities for young people can boost education retention rates. More generally, education results in returns to individuals in the form of higher lifetime incomes and a lower risk of unemployment, and to the society in the form of skilled labour and the benefits associated with that. There is concern, not only about the need to train and re-train people for work, but that training is effectively tailored to meet the needs of specific industries. For example, training that is directed towards supplying industries within particular regions may assist in reducing unemployment problems within those regions. Thus the transition of people from education into the labour force is an important focus for work statistics (see also Chapter 5 - Education and training).


Often the most prominent work-related concern, in the media and in community perceptions, is the level of unemployment. This is because unemployment is a well established indicator of economic conditions and future economic performance. It is also because unemployment, particularly long term unemployment, can potentially put people at risk of welfare dependence. Issues associated with unemployment relate to how work can be found, the barriers to finding work, and why jobs are lost. Some questions at the heart of these include:
  • Are some job search methods more successful than others?
  • How successful are labour market assistance policies and programs, and which groups should these target?
  • Do people experience episodes of temporary employment before settling into more permanent employment?
  • What circumstances or socioeconomic characteristics put people at risk of becoming unemployed or long term unemployed, or assist people to find work more quickly than others?


For the individual, the possibility of escape from unemployment moves further away as the duration of their unemployment increases. Long term unemployment is associated with a loss of skills and on-the-job training, a reduced intensity of job search, and a reluctance by employers to hire. Some people may cease to look for work altogether, as they become discouraged about their prospects. There is considerable interest in the effects of long term unemployment on people's wellbeing, and in ways of reducing long-term unemployment.


Unemployment, or change in occupation and industry structures, can create particular problems in rural and regional areas. These areas may be more reliant on single industries to maintain employment levels, population numbers and social infrastructures. Some large regional towns built around specific industries may not offer the variety of job opportunities available in urban areas. Young people may leave these towns in search of employment, further reducing the social resilience and regenerative properties of these regions.


Over the last few decades there has been an increased interest in identifying, acknowledging and valuing the unpaid work that supports healthy home and community life. Unpaid work done in and around the house includes cooking, cleaning, washing, gardening, home maintenance, caring for children and household management. The amount of time spent on this work by different family members, and particularly the distribution of this work within the household is associated with issues of equality between men and women. Balancing paid and unpaid work responsibilities, particularly those related to commitments to family, is also an important issue, featuring strongly in negotiations on workplace conditions.


From sports grounds to nursing homes, volunteers enrich many social and welfare networks and make an invaluable contribution to the Australian community. The extent to which people in a community participate in volunteer work can be an important indicator of that community's level of social capital. It can indicate what proportion of the population hold, and act on, values relating to altruism, contribution, and charity, and the extent to which governments need to make up any shortfall in the care and support available to the community. Also of interest is the extent to which voluntary work interacts with the paid workforce. For example, young people or people without paid work may use voluntary work as a stepping stone to obtaining paid employment. The amount of voluntary work being undertaken in a community may also affect the amount of welfare supplied to that community through government support infrastructures.

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