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Australian incomes stalled since 2009, latest HILDA data shows

If you feel like you're treading water with your household finances don't worry, you're not alone.

The latest instalment from the Melbourne Institute's study of Household Income and Labour Dynamics, or HILDA as it is affectionately known, shows the typical Australian household hasn't seen their post-tax real income rise noticeably since 2009.

That year, the median household had a disposable income of $79,160, at 2016 price levels.

In 2016, the latest year of HILDA data available, the median income was $79,244.
One piece of good news is that real incomes — that is adjusted to cancel out the effects of inflation — did rise 1.8 per cent compared to 2015.

Another is that Australians enjoyed massive real income growth of 29 per cent between 2003 and 2009, thanks to the flow-on effects of mining boom mark one.

A third was that income inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, remained relatively steady throughout the entire period since HILDA started in 2001.

However, while inequality across most of the population remained constant, the report's co-author Professor Roger Wilkins said the very highest income earners had done better than everyone else.

"We do see some growth in income captured by the very top, but among the bottom 99 per cent we're seeing very little change in the overall distribution of income," he told AM.

HILDA data is closely watched by the Reserve Bank and other policymakers as it provides a detailed snapshot on the social and financial details of more than 17,000 Australians each year, allowing researchers to track changes in the community.
Underemployment jumps as men lose full-time work

One of the contributors to stagnating household incomes has been the rising prevalence of part-time work and underemployment.

The report's authors observe that, while Australia escaped the worst immediate effects of the global financial crisis, it marked a turning point for the labour market from which workers have never fully recovered.

"From 2001 until 2008, employment participation had been rising and unemployment had been falling," they wrote.

"Since then, the labour market has been relatively flat, with the proportions of men and women employed remaining below their 2008 peaks and the proportions unemployed remaining above the 2008 trough."

The change has been particularly stark for men aged between 18-64, for whom the part-time employment rate rose from just over 10 to approximately 14 per cent, while full-time employment slumped from 73.3 per cent in 2008 to 67 per cent in 2016, although full-time employment for women aged 18-64 was also slightly down on its pre-GFC peak of almost 40 per cent.
Coinciding with the increase in part-time work has been a steep rise in underemployment, which has jumped to well over 8 per cent according to Bureau of Statistics data, after spending most of the 1980s below 4 per cent and the bulk of the 1990s and early-2000s below 7 per cent.

The HILDA study shows more than a third of part-time workers are working fewer hours than they would like to, with underemployment most prevalent amongst those aged under 24, full-time students, immigrants from non-English speaking nations, those without post-high school qualifications, single people and those with moderate or severe disabilities.

Notably, almost 50 per cent of people aged 20-24 and immigrants from non-English speaking countries of any age who worked part-time wanted more hours.
No-one going to the gig

However, according to HILDA, they are not working in the so-called "gig" economy.

At least to 2016, rates of self-employment had actually declined significantly since the turn of the century.

In 2001, close to 10 per cent of employed persons were solo self-employed, while more than 7.5 per cent of employed people not only worked for themselves but also employed others.

By 2016 this had fallen to 8.5 and just over 5 per cent respectively.

The report's authors say this debunks two common beliefs — that there has been a rise in the use of independent workers and that small business is not driving employment growth.

"The HILDA survey evidence indicates that, if the gig economy is growing as rapidly as is commonly believed, then either it involves the substitution of one type of self-employed worker for another (as might be happening in the taxi industry) or it is largely consigned to second jobs," they wrote.

"This coincidence of declining employer numbers with high employment rates suggests that self-employment is not the engine of employment growth that it is so often claimed to be.

"Less clear is the source of this decline. The most likely explanations, however, lie in factors such as globalisation and technological change that have worked in favour of larger firms."
Higher education doesn't close gender gap

The HILDA survey shows a massive increase in university attendance over the 15 years between 2001 and 2016, especially for women.

In 2001, 22.6 per cent of both men and women aged 25-64 had a university degree. By 2016 this had jumped to 31.1 per cent of men and 35.7 per cent of women.

The increase in masters and doctorate level degree was even more striking, with the proportion of people holding this level of qualification more than doubling from 4.2 per cent of men and just 2.4 per cent of women to 8.5 and 7.4 per cent respectively.

However, this disproportionate growth in tertiary education for women has done little to close the gender pay gap.

Between 2001 and 2016 the average weekly earnings of full-time employees increased 23 per cent for males and 22 per cent for females, meaning the pay gap remains virtually unchanged, despite a higher proportion of women than men holding tertiary qualifications.


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