Influencers & Profiles

GFC hangover still changing society

James Thomson /

This morning I attended a breakfast put on by polling firm Roy Morgan Research, which has released its latest State of the Nation report.

The company, which surveys 55,000 Australian consumers and 22,000 businesses, is probably best-known for its political polling, but from an entrepreneur’s perspective the insights it collects into changes in society, consumer behaviour and business performance is really worth examining.

Today’s presentation by chief executive Michele Levine contained some great insights into the confidence levels and performance in the various sectors of the economy. The clear message is that the idea of mining versus the rest is wrong – there are 20 sectors running at what amounts to 20 speeds, according to their exposure to consumers and the global economy.

And the outside view of a sector doesn’t always reflect what insiders feel. For example, despite the job cuts we are seeing in banking, financial services and insurance is actually one of the more confident sectors.

Happily, Levine was reasonably positive about the trajectory for consumer and business confidence, with both starting to pick up. However, the economy remains the biggest worry in consumers’ minds, so any issues could dent confidence quickly.

Moving away from the business data, I wanted to pick up on three potential societal trends highlighted by Levine which I think speak to the incredible effect that the GFC has had on our psyches.

A return to conservatism?

Levine says Australia has become a much more progressive society since the late 1990s – attitudes to issues such as the ability for homosexuals to adopt have changed greatly, with consumer approval rising from 32% in 1998 to 51.2% in 2011.

But Levine has noticed a shift in the last 12 months away from progressive values and despite our love of technology, a decline in support for the statement, “I am attracted to new things and new ideas”.

One interesting reflection of this shift is the level of support for the ridiculous concept that women should stay home and allow men to run the country. Support for this bizarre idea fell from 9.5% in 1998 to 7% in the early 2000s, but has since kicked back up to 9.5%. Levine says the GFC may have made community attitudes more conservative, a trend picked up from Roy Morgan’s research in the US, where support for the “women at home” theory is a remarkably ugly 21%.

Insulating ourselves?

Roy Morgan’s data about our leisure activities speaks volumes about the way we have turned away from community organisations towards individual ones. For example, 46.1% of people now say they exercise in the gym, versus 23.2% who play sport.

Technology-related leisure activities (such as using a computer) have soared, while the proportion of consumers spending time with relatives or friends has fallen from 71.3% in 1998 to 63.6% since 1998. The trend of cocooning in the home was one talked about a lot during the GFC and this data suggests it’s not a trend going away soon.

Hidden unemployment?

The big discrepancy between Roy Morgan’s measure of unemployment – which stands at 10.3% – and that of the ABS – which stands at 5.3% – is worth pointing out. Levine says that the difference stems from the fact Roy Morgan asks respondents simply if they are looking for work, whereas the ABS measures unemployed as those actively seeking work in the week before their survey.

Even if Roy Morgan’s stats don’t suggest a much higher level of unemployment, they do point to a big problem with underemployment. And as Levine points out, this hits young people between 14 and 29 hardest. What are the implications of this if the situation worsens? Youth unemployment can have long-lasting effects on an economy.

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James Thomson

James was the editor and publisher of SmartCompany and LeadingCompany for five years. He is now the Australian Financial Review's companies & markets editor, and a former BRW editor.

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