Women were doing 21 hours more unpaid work than men a week and experiencing higher levels of psychological distress in the year before the pandemic, a new report has found.
The annual Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (Hilda) survey is a nationally representative study involving interviews with 17,500 people in 9,500 households.
This year’s report, released on Tuesday and compiled by the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Institute, covers data from 2019, before the massive social and economic upheaval caused by Covid-19.
While household incomes were rising again after years of stagnation, the national snapshot shows poverty was also increasing, and two groups that would be hit hard by the pandemic were already disadvantaged.
Women and young people both reported poorer mental health, while the former were lumped with more of the burden of unpaid work, and younger people were already finding it harder to crack into the labour market.
In 2019, women were doing far more unpaid work than men, the study found, with the gap being particularly large in heterosexual couples with dependent children.
Over the life of the Hilda survey that gap has narrowed, from women doing 28.8 hours a week more unpaid labour than men in 2002 to 20.9 hours in 2019.
That’s partly due to men picking up slightly more of the load – they reported 27.8 hours in 2019 up from 24.7 hours in 2002. But researchers say it’s mostly due to women doing slightly less: 48.7 hours in 2019, down from 53.5 hours in 2002.
Housework was found to be the largest form of unpaid work, followed by caring for children, with the amount of unpaid work escalating sharply after the birth of a first child.
Women also felt more time-stressed than men, with 38% of women saying they were time-stressed “often” or “almost always” – a constant from 2001 – while the proportion of men who report the same level of time-stress has fallen from 34% to 29% since then.
“Women with young children are the most time-stressed and you can see why,” said the report’s author Prof Roger Wilkins.
The report also paints a worrying picture of Australians’ mental health, with 23% of women and 19% of men reporting psychological distress in 2019.
This is about 40% higher since 2007, when 18% and 15% of women and men reported experiencing psychological distress.
It is also affecting more young people than ever before: 30% of people between the age of 15 and 24 experienced psychological distress in 2019 compared to 21% in 2007. Indigenous women were slightly more likely than non-Indigenous women to grapple with it.
In the study, participants were asked a series of questions including whether they had felt tired out for no good reason, nervous, restless, depressed or worthless, among other things.
Dr Ferdi Botha, one of the authors of the report, said that while some of the increase may be attributed to a better general understanding of mental health, it was still a “surprisingly large” jump in prevalence.
“Definitely the stigma around mental illness has declined a lot, so we think there’s a greater tendency for people to be willing to report that they are struggling,” Botha said.
“However, social contact frequency was one of the strongest predictors of distress by far. People are becoming more socially isolated, and we do know there are increasing trends in loneliness. It’s a known predictor of anxiety and depression.”
It was important to look at the relationship between economic circumstances and mental health, too, said Botha, with the study showing a correlation between higher income and lower likelihood of psychological distress.
Incomes, inequality and poverty
Overall, median household disposable incomes have increased by $2,116 since 2017, reaching $84,243 in 2019 – the first time median disposable incomes have exceeded 2009 levels.
Wilkins said one of the most concerning economic trends emerging from the latest survey was a reduction in income mobility, which refers to one’s ability to improve their economic position relative to others.
On a year-to-year basis, Hilda found 32.2% of those in the lowest income quintile were likely to move up in economic position between 2001 and 2006, compared with 30.9% between 2013 and 18.
“People are increasingly finding themselves stuck in a poverty trap,” Wilkins said, blaming the rate of welfare payments.
At the same time, those in the top bracket were more likely to remain in the highest income quintile: the proportion who remained there rose from 70.% in 2001-2006 to 74% in 2013-2018.
This reflected a lack of “dynamism” in the economy, Wilkins said.
Over the life of the study, relative poverty rates have fluctuated, from a peak of 13.2% in 2007 to 9.8% in 2016.
But since then they have increased again each year, hitting 11.3% in 2019.
Poverty levels are expected to fall in next year’s survey, given the federal government briefly doubled unemployment benefits during the pandemic.
Households and families
Hilda also found young people are living at home for longer, with a rise in the number of women between the ages of 18 to 25 still living with their parents.
In 2019, 72% of women aged 18 to 21 and 50% of women aged 22 to 25 lived with their parents, up from 67.7% and 32.3% respectively in 2001.
“The transition to adulthood has been getting more difficult over the last 15 years,” Wilkins said. “That’s becoming economically independent, starting families, having a career, moving into homeownership – these are traditional markers of moving into adulthood.”
Wilkins said that in general young people were less likely to be in full-time work, while university graduates were finding their incomes remaining stagnant when they did enter the workforce.
The survey also found Australians are more likely to be living with a partner as they age, though a large proportion of people – 37% – are in “intimate, ongoing” relationships with someone who does not live with them. Only 2% of people in a relationship with someone after eight years do not live together.