1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2012  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 24/05/2012   
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Information on people's experience in the labour market – when and whether they work, in what sort of jobs and for how many hours a week – is a window into Australia. It highlights changes in both our economy and society and the interactions between them. The ABS collects this information through its Labour Force Survey (LFS).

The LFS is the longest running ABS household survey and provides the basis for an extensive program of labour and social surveys of the Australian population. The LFS provides official statistics on the number of employed and unemployed Australians and their working arrangements. Labour statistics assist in the development, monitoring and evaluation of policy; they are used by government and business analysts, academics, employee and employer organisations, and the broader community.

November 2011 marked the 50th anniversary of the ABS Labour Force and Supplementary Survey Program (a Labour Force Supplementary Survey is a series of questions asked on a particular topic or of a particular group of people). A lot has changed since the LFS first started, not only in the way the data are collected and disseminated, but – more importantly – in the numbers themselves. Australia in 2011 is a very different place to the Australia of 1961. This article looks at a number of important trends over the past half century or so: the increase of women working, the rise of part-time employment, and workforce changes within industry and occupation.

A note on data comparability over time

Although LFS data are available as far back as November 1960, the majority of historical comparisons in the article between now and then are from 1966. This is mainly because, prior to 1964, the LFS was run only in six state capital cities and data detail between 1960 and 1965 is fairly limited. For example, there is no breakdown between full-time or part-time work, age groupings are very broad and there are no data on industry or occupation. Although there have been some key changes to the LFS in these areas, it is important to note that the Labour Force Framework, on which the LFS is based, has conceptually remained the same since it was first developed (although there have been some minor amendments made in accordance with International Labour Organization guidelines). Any changes made to the LFS since 1966 have had minimal impact on the time series.


1960s – The tea lady, smoking and the introduction of the Pill.....

In the 1960s, tea ladies did the rounds, smoking in the workplace was the norm and the standard working week was Monday to Friday, nine to five. Three weeks annual leave became the standard across Australia in 1963, and it was not until 1999 that all Australian workers had access to personal carer's leave, maternity/paternity/adoption leave and equal pay. [Endnote 1]

The labour force was characterised by a marked division of the sexes and their expected roles in society. For men, the traditional role was to be the breadwinner and support a wife and family. Consequentially, part-time work was uncommon and child care was rare, leaving women the option of either starting a family, or working full-time (although there were some restrictions on married women in the workforce, for example, before 1966, married women could not work in the Commonwealth public service). In 1961, it was common for women to marry young, with the median age for first brides 21 years. [Endnote 2] It was also common for women to have their first baby in their early 20s and the fertility rate was higher than today at 3.5 babies per woman. [Endnote 3]

In the late 1960s, Australian women began to question the restrictive roles society had placed on them. Many women felt that there was more to life than raising children and 'keeping house'. Women marched, protested and pressured governments in a bid to gain equal rights in all aspects of life including the workplace, education, politics and sport. The introduction of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s granted women greater sexual freedom, and gave them greater control over whether and when they had children.

2011 Flexible hours, access to family friendly leave and adequate child care.....

By August 2011, the tea lady had largely been replaced by handwritten notes at the coffee point warning staff to clean up after themselves, and smoking is no longer permitted in workplaces. Many women are starting a family much later in life, having fewer children (the fertility rate has fallen to 1.9 births per woman) and often having children without marrying first. In 2009, 35% of the babies born were to unmarried parents. [Endnote 4] The crude marriage rate was 5.5 marriages per 1,000 estimated resident population in 2009, [Endnote 5] compared with 9.2 marriages per 1,000 estimated resident population in 1969. [Endnote 3]

The nature of the labour force has changed remarkably over the last 50 years. Today, people are working an increasingly diverse range of hours and patterns, often related to their stage of life or family circumstances. Flexible hours of work is important, as are access to family friendly leave provisions and affordable child care. As women's labour force participation has increased, there has been a corresponding increase in the demand for child care places. [Endnote 6]

There has been significant growth in employment, and increased participation in the labour force, particularly for women. [Endnote 6] This is largely due to the increased proportion of women returning to work after having children. There is also considerable diversity in how families participate in the labour force. The traditional male breadwinner arrangements have declined since the 1960s and now both partners of couple families are likely to be employed. People have access to more paid leave entitlements and types of leave than 50 years ago; personal carer's leave and maternity/paternity/adoption leave all form part of the family-friendly leave provisions that help parents juggle paid work and family responsibilities. Changes to legislation include the national Paid Parental Leave scheme, introduced in January 2011 and the Fair Work Act, 2009 (Cwlth), which effectively gives parents and other people caring for young children the right to make formal requests for flexible work arrangements. [Endnote 7]


There has been significant growth in employment, and increased participation in the labour force over the last 50 years, particularly for women. Women's participation in the labour force in August 2011 is 59%, almost double that of August 1961 (34%). Changing social attitudes, the availability of safe contraception and planned parenting, as well as adequate child care facilities have all helped to allow women to continue their careers. The growth in availability of part-time work has helped too.

In August 1966, labour force participation for women reduced slightly for the 20–24 year age group and then dramatically for the 25–34 year age group, with many women never returning to the labour force. In contrast, although a relatively slight 'nappy valley' effect can be seen between the ages of 25 to 44, labour force participation in August 2011 is still a lot higher than it was in 1966 and remains relatively unaffected by age from 20 to 54 (graph 8.9).

8.9 Age specific labour force participation rates, Females

While women's participation in the labour force has increased, there has been a noticeable decline in the labour force participation of men, from 82% in August 1961 to 72% in August 2011. This fall has affected all age groups (graph 8.10); it may be due to greater retention in school and further education, as well as earlier retirement.

Although the participation rate only tells part of the story, it is important to note that the proportion of men employed on a full-time basis has declined substantially in recent decades. In August 1966, 80% of men aged over 15 were employed full-time but by August 2011, this proportion had fallen to 57%. A 2009 working paper from the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research suggests that the decline in male employment may be attributable to a combination of factors including population ageing, increased educational attainment, decreased incidence of partnering and dependent children, and increased employment of partners. [Endnote 8] However, while the participation rates for women have experienced large gains over the last 50 years and those of men have fallen, participation rates for men still remain higher than for women, except in the 15–19 year age group.

8.10 Age specific labour force participation rates, Males


The first Labour Force Survey was run in November 1960, with the first supplementary survey in November 1961. Initially, it was known as the Survey of Employment and Unemployment or the Work Force Survey, and was the first household survey ever run by the ABS. It was made possible by the integration of the state and federal statistical agencies into a single bureau and major advances in survey methods and computer technology. It was driven by keen interest from the Commonwealth Treasury for a reliable economic indicator of the health of the labour force. The survey was originally run quarterly, and until 1966, only covered the six state capital cities and excluded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The original survey form was a card about half the size of an A4 sheet, and contained only 23 questions. It was not long before the value of interviewing 38,000 households four times a year captured the imagination and the survey began to expand. In November 1961, the first supplementary survey, topic 'Internal Migration', was included. By the end of the 1960s, 25 different supplementary surveys had been run, tagged onto the back of the Labour Force Survey form. They covered a broad range of economic and social topics, including education, work experience, travel, chronic illness, superannuation, child care, income and ex-servicemen. One of the most unusual was run on behalf of the Victorian Egg Board on the number of hens kept, and eggs produced, at home. Additional questions were also added to the main Labour Force Survey, including family relationship, which led to the first issue of family-based labour statistics in 1974. As the survey expanded and more data were collected, interviewers in the 1960s and 70s had to cope with more and more questions being squeezed onto the form, so font sizes became increasingly small. By 1978, the size of the form was doubled to A4.

In February 1978, the survey frequency changed from quarterly to monthly and was adopted as the official source of national measures of employment and unemployment. The ABS has carefully maintained the monthly series from this point onwards, managing the introduction of new classifications and survey changes with a minimum of disruption to the consistency of data. The content has also expanded, including the introduction of regional estimates in October 1982 and annual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander estimates in 1994. In November 1989, the survey form was updated to make use of new optical scanning technology – very much like that used for the current census form today. Telephone interviewing was introduced in 1996 and computer-assisted interviewing in 2003. Such developments have greatly reduced the time taken to conduct and process the survey – in the 1960s, it took about three years to publish the first survey results but now the time between the last interview of the month and the published results is less than three weeks. Recent developments in technology and data manipulation have also enabled new ways of viewing LFS data, such as the Aggregate monthly hours worked series released in 2009.

The data are now also much easier and cheaper to access. Output has progressed from priced paper publications, to diskettes and CD-roms and the 0055-dial-a-statistic services, to use of the World Wide Web to provide free electronic publications, spreadsheets, and datacubes.


One of the most noticeable developments in the labour market over the past 50 years has been the substantial growth in part-time work, which is defined by the ABS as employed people who usually work fewer than 35 hours per week in all jobs (and did so in the survey's reference week). Part-time work enables people to combine work with other activities and commitments. This can be especially important for women with young children and those, primarily young people, who are studying.

Having young children has a large influence on women's labour force participation. Nowadays, many women reduce their working hours while their children are young, rather than leave the labour force altogether as was previously more often the case. In August 2011, the proportion of women working part-time in the 25–34 year age group (24%), although lower than women in the younger or older age groups, was still twice as high as it was in August 1966 (11%) (graph 8.11).

8.11 Employed persons as a percentage of the population, Females

Part-time work has always been dominated by women: close to three-quarters of all part-timers in August 2011 were women. However, in recent years there has been an increase in the proportion of men working part-time. There is a clear U shaped graph: men at the start or end of their working lives are more likely to be part-time than those in their prime working years (graph 8.12). Many younger men combine work with study, while those in their late 50s or older may be in transition to retirement. In 2008–09, a quarter of all men in the 55–59 age bracket intended to retire from working full-time and were working part-time. [Endnote 9]

8.12 Employed persons as a percentage of the population, Males


In August 1966, the industries which employed most people were Manufacturing (26%) and Wholesale and retail trade (21%). Manufacturing is now a relatively small component of the economy, accounting for just 8% of employed people. In August 2011, the Health care and social assistance industry employed more people than any other (12%), followed by Retail trade (11%) and Construction (9%). Agriculture and Mining accounted for only 3% and 2% (respectively) of all employed people. The growth in some service industries also reflects a changing Australia; 77% more people now work in the child care industry compared to just 10 years ago.

Production and service industries

In August 1966, 46% of all employed people in Australia worked in production industries (graph 8.13). [Endnote 10] By 2011, that proportion had halved to 23%. During that 45-year period, almost all employment growth was in the service sector, with a tripling of the workforce from 2.6 million to 8.7 million – a relative rise from 54% of all employed people in August 1966, to 77% in August 2011. [Endnote 11] During the same period, the number of people working in production industries has remained fairly steady at between 2.2 and 2.7 million.

8.13 Proportion of all employed people in the production and service industries


The type of jobs occupied in the 1960s reflected the more manual work predominantly associated with trades and lower skilled jobs, often referred to as 'blue collar' work. [Endnote 12] The most common occupations in August 1966 were Tradesmen, production process workers and labourers (44%), Farmers, fishermen, timber getters (12%) and Clerical (9%) (graph 8.14).

The broad patterns of industrial change over the last 45 years can be seen in the occupations in which Australians work today. The shift away from production to service industries has reduced the opportunities for blue collar workers and increased the opportunities for 'white collar' workers. [Endnotes 13 & 14] The most common occupations in August 2011 were Professionals (22%), Clerical and administrative workers (15%) and Technicians and trades workers (14%).

8.14 Proportion of all employed people in the blue and white collar occupations


1. Australian Council of Trade Unions, About Trade Unions <Back>
2. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Marriages, Australia, 1977, (3306.0) <Back>
3. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Historical Population Statistics, 2008, (3105.0.65.001) <Back>
4. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Births, Australia, 2009, (3301.0) <Back>
5. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Marriages and Divorces, Australia, 2009, (3310.0) <Back>
6. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Families in Australia Report: 2008, Chapter 7: Balancing Work and Family, DPMC, Canberra. <Back>
7. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2009, "Work, Life and Family Balance", Australian Social Trends, (4102.0). <Back>
8. Black, D, Tseng, Y and Wilkins, R 2009, "Examining the Role of Demographic Change in the Decline in Male Employment in Australia: A Propensity Score Re-weighting Decomposition Approach", Melbourne Institute Working Paper Series No. 24/09, Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, Melbourne, <http://www.melbourneinstitute.com/>. <Back>
9. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Retirement and Retirement Intentions, 2008–09, (6238.0). <Back>
10. Production industries in graph 8.13 refer to production industries as defined within the official industrial classifications pertaining at the time and vary slightly between periods. For the latest period, they include: Agriculture, forestry and fishing; Mining; Manufacturing; Electricity, gas, water and waste services; and Construction. <Back>
11. Service industries in graph 8.13 refer to service industries as defined within the official industrial classifications pertaining at the time and vary slightly between periods. For the latest period, they include: Wholesale trade; Retail trade; Accommodation and food services; Transport, postal and warehousing; Information media and telecommunications; Financial and insurance services; Rental, hiring and real estate services; Professional, scientific and technical services; Administrative and support services; Public administration and safety; Education and training; Health care and social assistance; Arts and recreation services; and Other services. <Back>
12. The descriptions of blue collar occupations come from the official classifications of occupations pertaining at the time and vary slightly between periods. For the latest period, they include: Technicians and trades workers; Machinery operators and drivers; and Labourers. <Back>
13. The descriptions of white collar occupations come from the official classifications of occupations pertaining at the time and vary slightly between periods. For the latest period, they include: Managers; Professionals; Community and personal service workers; Clerical and administrative workers; and Sales workers. <Back>
14. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1997, "Paid Work: Changing industries, changing jobs", Australian Social Trends, (4102.0). <Back>


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Statistics contained in the Year Book are the most recent available at the time of preparation. In many cases, the ABS website and the websites of other organisations provide access to more recent data. Each Year Book table or graph and the bibliography at the end of each chapter provides hyperlinks to the most up to date data release where available.