It has always been accepted that a smart, hard-working, well-mannered young Aussie will be able to find an area of academic interest, get a good degree, find a well-paid job and, with diligence and application, work full-time until his or her retirement. That ensures a house, a family, a couple of cars, holidays, regular entertainment outings and a comfy old age.
That is now possible for a shrinking percentage of Australians only — a percentage that will soon be a minority, if it isn’t already. A structural shift is clearly on.
Back in 1978, when the Bureau of Statistics started recording jobs data in its current format, 48.5% of Australia’s population aged 15 and above had full-time jobs. For the next 14 years, this fluctuated between 44.0% and 48.7%. A narrow range.
Then came the radical restructure of Australia’s economy in the early 1990s, after which, permanent part-time work for those who preferred it was accommodated. Thereafter, from 1992 until 2013, the percentage of Australians in full-time work ranged between 42.3% and 45.5%. Narrower still. Even through the global financial crisis, August 2008 to August 2013, fluctuations stayed within those limits.
A curious thing then happened in October 2014. Soon after Tony Abbott’s Coalition government implemented its changes to the budget, employment policy, the tax regime and trade relations, the ratio fell below 42% for the first time ever. It fell again in November 2014, then reached fresh lows also in April and May 2016 — after both Abbott and his hapless treasurer Joe Hockey had been replaced by Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison.
New depths were then plumbed in July, August and September last year, the last being 41.2%, the lowest recorded. Last week’s number was 41.3%, the second lowest ever.
That makes 12 consecutive months with the ratio below 42%. Yet, over the last 12 months, Australia’s gross domestic product has grown by a robust 2.4%, trade is now in a record surplus, exports of minerals, gas and other products are booming, corporations have declared record profits and the Tax Office has shown that declared profits are a fraction of actual profits. So what is happening to jobs is structural rather than merely cyclical.
Academia appears not to have picked this up. Opposition MPs aware of this are either not saying much or not being reported. The Coalition is denying it. The mainstream media are reporting only what supports the Coalition.
(Coalition comment on last week’s monthly figures was from Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham rather than Employment Minister Michaelia Cash. Has Cash has been sin-binned until her house-buying scandal blows over? Or is she busy buying another house?)
Birmingham bragged, “Since the Coalition came to office in September 2013, we have created 534,400 jobs, an increase of 4.7 per cent.”
True. But nothing to brag about. The adult population has gone up 5.2%. And 2013 was the end of the global recession. Given the global economic recovery and Australia’s corporate boom, the increase should have been above 6.0%.
Other indicators of this structural shift away from full-time work being available for the majority include:
Number of people unemployed
From a peak above 950,000 in 1992, the jobless number dropped steadily, falling below 740,000 in April 1995. In 1998, in the early Howard period, it fell below 720,000 where it remained throughout the rest of Howard’s term and the entire Labor period.
It appeared the dark days above 720,000 were gone forever. Within months of the 2013 election, however, the jobless number had snuck above 720,000 again. Shortly after the 2014 budget, it had risen above 760,000. High levels have remained since. In February, it was 748,123.
Hours worked per person per month
This is the best indicator of real paid work over time. It takes into account all variables: part-time work, full-time work and population. In September 2013, it was 85.58. This fell to a dismal 83.89 in December 2014, the lowest level since March 1994. In February, this was 84.17, the third lowest since 1994.
Hours worked have been below 85.4 for the last 12 months, the worst outcome since the early 1990s.
Job participation in September 2013 was 71.2%. It plummeted to 64.4% last September and October, the lowest since 2006. It is currently 64.6%.
Job participation for men fell below 71% for the first time in Australian recorded history in December 2013. It fell to fresh lows twice in 2014, and twice again in 2016. In January, it reached an all-time low of 70.0%.
Job participation for young people aged 15 to 19 fell to a record low last October of 52.0%, and remains depressed.
Ministers insist Australia’s economy is “in transition”, which is true. They continually chant the mantra “jobs and growth”, which is half true.
The reality is that the economy is transitioning away from providing most workers with full-time jobs to one where that privilege is enjoyed by far fewer.
Is this what the government intends? Simon Birmingham’s satisfaction that his government is “creating the right policy frameworks” suggests so.