Recruitment & Hiring

Australia’s participation rate has fallen to a seven-year low, and economists aren’t sure why

Bernard Keane /

Last week’s employment data showed a fall in Australia’s workforce participation rate to 64.9%, the lowest for seven years.

If the rate had been maintained at the level of three years ago, unemployment would have been around 6.6% in September, according to some estimates. Labor thus left office with workforce participation having peaked and begun declining on its watch. It’s now a challenge the Coalition has inherited, and a significant one.

The reasons why fewer of us are in, or seeking, paid employment?—?in particular, whether it’s the long-awaited impact of ageing on the workforce?—?aren’t clear (the AFR’s David Bassanese had a good go this week). In a speech nearly a year ago on the labour market, Reserve Bank Deputy Governor Phil Lowe told an audience in Hobart that:

“One interesting aspect of the recent outcomes is that despite only modest overall employment growth, the unemployment rate has not moved up, as had been widely expected. Part of the reason for this is that there has been a decline in labour force participation?—?that is, in the share of the working-age population either with a job or looking for a job. While one always needs to interpret short-run movements with caution, the current participation rate is around half a percentage point lower than the average of the past five years. This stands in contrast to the general upward trend in participation over the past 30 years.

“The Reserve Bank has recently spent some time trying to understand what is happening here and what it says about the balance of supply and demand in the labour market.”

Some of this work looked at demographic changes, high levels of structural change in many industries delaying the re-entry of workers (especially men) and the weakness in construction which traditionally has high levels of self-employed workers. But from the lack of a firm conclusion in this speech, the RBA remains as puzzled, as are many other economists.

Tuesday’s minutes of the Reserve Bank’s October meeting carried this tantalising paragraph:

“Members were briefed on longer-run changes in the industry composition of output and employment. The share of economic activity occurring in service industries had increased over time. Employment in services had recorded a greater increase than in goods-related industries, in part reflecting slower productivity growth in service industries. Over the past decade, the bulk of the increase in employment had been in service industries.”

This is understood to have been a briefing based on an earlier request from the board. There’s no research being prepared for a later article in the quarterly bulletin or a speech by a senior official, such as Governor Glenn Stevens (who speaks in Sydney on Friday) or Lowe, who is out in public in Melbourne the following week.

The reason for the request isn’t known, but it could be linked to the way the labour market has softened since mid-year, especially with a noticeable fall in the participation rate. The minutes made this observation about the labour market:

“The labour market had softened further in recent months. The unemployment rate had increased to 5.8 per cent, the participation rate had declined and the level of employment was little changed from earlier in the year. Members noted that hours worked had increased. Although the hours worked data are volatile, possible explanations for the increase included changes in sectoral employment shares, increased hours for existing staff as firms attempted to contain labour costs or reluctance of firms to take on new staff. Forward-looking indicators of labour demand remained soft and the Bank’s liaison suggested that employment intentions had been subdued in recent months, most notably in mining and mining-related sectors.”

The Howard government was aware of the need to continue to push participation. Joe Hockey defended government assistance for working women in the face of opposition from social conservatives on the basis that “we’re running out of workers”. That government also tried to reduce the price of labour, via Workchoices, thus bringing underskilled workers into or back into the workforce (which had, as Treasury predicted, a negative impact on productivity).

With Workchoices dead, buried, cremated, staked through the heart and shot into space by Tony Abbott as opposition leader, that option isn’t currently available. Now in government, the Coalition does see its PPL scheme as providing a greater participation incentive than the Labor scheme it wants to replace. But addressing participation traditionally requires the rather mundane work of improving training, making jobs more interesting and lowering barriers to older workers (something Labor tried to do) and increase mobility, something Abbott has flagged previously via clunky incentive schemes to encourage workers to move to mining states?—?now useless given mining is shedding workers. And bear in mind high property prices in Sydney and Melbourne might be an increasing disincentive all of their own.

In many respects the weak participation rate is more important than abolishing the mining tax or the carbon tax. In the medium to longer term, higher levels of workforce participation boosts employment, standards of living and tax revenues (especially from the GST) and helps underwrite a higher level of demand in the economy. What the Coalition Employment Minister Luke Hartsuyker does on the issue will have a significant bearing on future budgets and economic growth.

This article first appeared on Crikey.

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