Census 2016: it’s an evolving slog for the hardest workers

This article is written by Bernard Salt, Managing Director of The Demographics Group. This article is originally published in The Australian.

There was a time when the world of work was simple enough. Men worked outside the home, and so did women until they married and “gave up work” to be a housewife and a mother. By my reckoning we are a half-century on from that world. In the intervening years women have “returned to” or “remained in” the workforce.

Then there has been changes to the amount of work we complete each week. The 40-hour week, involving men working Saturday mornings, was at first superseded by a shorter working week and this was then distorted further by the rise of part-time work, as a permanent or a casual arrangement.

The model of the way we work today is far more complex than at any time in the past. What we are doing is slowly reconfiguring work around how we want to live and what we need to do to remain globally competitive. Work is increasing like a pliable malleable mortar that is injected between the building blocks of our lives: career breaks, part time, job sharing, work from home are all part of the modern work experience.

The 2016 census confirms that 65.5 percent of jobs are full time, down one percentage point from the 2011 census. Full-time jobs grew 4 percent across the five years to 2016 while part-time jobs increased 14 per cent. All of this is background in an attempt to answer a question that is so often asked: who is working hardest?

This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer because the issue is muddied by the ever changing mix of full and part-time jobs. And besides, some of the hardest workers in the community aren’t in the workforce: they’re volunteering, caring, studying, rearing children and maybe even working outside the family home as well. The census doesn’t capture all aspects of human endeavour, just some. Which means that if you don’t like the conclusion I come to about who is working hardest then you can always claim the data isn’t sufficiently comprehensive.

Even with the concept of full-time work there is scope for interpretation: the average full-time worker in Paraburdoo in the Pilbara worked 62 hours in the week before the census whereas the average worker in Canberra worked 43 hours. Full-time workers across Australia worked an average of 44.4 hours in the week leading up to the census. This compares with an average of 44.9 hours five years earlier. By this measure Australian workers have eased the pace of work in the years since the peak of the mining boom.

Full-time working men work more than 46 hours a week between the ages of 42 and 58, whereas full-time working women work more than 43 hours a week between the ages of 45 and 65. Men put in longer hours than women but they can’t keep it at these peak rates for any more than 15 years, whereas women set themselves up with a working model that is less intense but lasts longer — 20 years.

Interestingly, the slowdown in the full-time working model has been greater for men than for women. Men aged 36 to 40 working full-time are working one hour less a week now than five years ago. On the other hand, the retreat from full-time work is about a half-hour a week for women aged 31 to 33 (typically the age of first pregnancy) and women aged 36 to 38 (managing toddlers).

Retreat from work

Average weekly hours worked by full-time workers, by age and gender

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I think there’s a shift under way in the way young couples manage households: men are stepping back from the role of sole and even prime income earner. Women, too, are easing up in their full-time work commitments when children arrive.

In modern child-rearing households there is more blurring of the roles of the breadwinner and the caregiver.

The economy, too, is shifting towards more part-time work, but I think this arrangement better suits the work-life preferences of many young parents.

There is a marked difference between the number of hours worked by full-time workers in the public versus the private sector.

Public sector workers work pretty much the same number of hours a week throughout their whole careers. For private sector workers, on the other hand, it’s different story: the amount of time put into work escalates in the 30s and remains high throughout the 40s and 50s.

The census shows that public sector workers work at least two hours less a week than private sector workers. This difference is no doubt skewed by the gender mix, by the mix of management versus labouring work, and perhaps also by the impact of workplace agreements.

In mining towns in the Pilbara and in other parts of Western Australia, where towns exist solely to service a local mine, full-time workers reported working more than 70 hours in the week leading up to the census. Places such as Pannawonica, Leinster and, of course, Paraburdoo are like no other places on the continent.

More than 50 hours is the average worked in places such as Nebo in Queensland’s Bowen Basin, Roxby Downs in South Australia and Cobar in outback NSW.

If you want a definitive answer to who works hardest then look no further than purpose-built worker towns strewn across the outback. Workers fly in and fly out solely to rack up as many hours as possible at attractive rates of pay.

Public vs private

Average weekly hours worked by full-time workers, public vs private sector

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The experience of full-time work is pretty much the same across all capital cities, at least in terms of the number of hours worked each week (43 to 44), but this figure is often higher in regional cities, especially in provincial cities affected by mining activity such as Bunbury, where the average full-time employee works 46 hours a week, Darwin (46 hours), Gladstone (47 hours) and Kalgoorlie (51 hours).

In the lifestyle town of Beerburrum, north of Brisbane’s Caboolture, the average full-time worker (there’s 80 of them) works 39 hours a week, which is not quite half the hours worked in the west’s gold and nickel town of Leinster (with 131 full-time workers).

I don’t think the issue is so much who works hardest, it’s more an issue of who gets access to work and who will have access to work in the future.

The world of work is on the move as are the building blocks of how Australians expect to live. Toss in the immense scale of this continent and the rise and fall of different industries and you have a world of work in a state of flux.

Perhaps the most valuable skill isn’t so much a prescribed qualification but the capacity to adapt to whatever shape is required to fit into the workforce.

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