Employment underpins the economic productivity of a nation and enables people to support themselves, their families and their communities. Employment is also tied to physical and mental health outcomes and is a key factor in overall wellbeing. This page provides insight into employment trends in Australia.

Employment definitions

The information on this page is sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Labour Force Survey (December 2018) (ABS 2018a) except where otherwise specified. Where available, seasonally adjusted data has been used. The ABS Labour Force survey uses these definitions:

Working-age population: All people aged 15–64.

Labour force: All people in the working-age population who are employed or unemployed (actively looking for work).

Not in the labour force: All people in the working-age population who are unemployed and not looking for work.  

Unemployed people: All people in the working-age population who were unemployed in the survey reference week and:

  • had actively looked for full-time or part-time work at any time in the 4 weeks up to the end of the survey reference week and were available for work in the reference week, or
  • were waiting to start a new job within 4 weeks from the end of the reference week and could have started in the reference week if the job had been available then.

Participation rate: Percentage of the working-age population that is in the labour force.

Employment rate: Number of employed people, for any group, expressed as a percentage of the civilian population in the same group. Also referred to as the employment-to-population ratio.

Unemployment rate: Number of unemployed people expressed as a percentage of the labour force.

Underemployment rate: Number of employed people in the working-age population who are either employed:

  • part time and want to work more hours and are available to start with more hours in the survey reference week or in the 4 weeks after the survey
  • full time but worked fewer than 35 hours during the survey reference week for economic reasons, including being stood down or insufficient work being available.

The underemployment rate is expressed as a percentage of the labour force.

Full-time unemployment rate: Number of unemployed people looking for full-time work as a percentage of the full-time labour force (full-time employed and unemployed looking for full-time work).

Part-time unemployment rate: Number of unemployed people looking for part-time work as a percentage of the part-time labour force (part-time employed and unemployed looking for part-time work).

More definitions and information on how data on employment are collected can be found in the explanatory notes of the ABS Labour Force Survey (ABS 2018a) and Labour Statistics: Concepts, Sources and Methods (ABS 2018b).

Employment

Since the late 1970s, Australia has generally experienced increases in the level of employment. The average employment rate for all working-age Australians in this period was around 70%, with a low of 62% in April 1983 and a high of 74% in December 2018. Nonetheless, the employment experiences of individuals differ with age, sex, educational attainment and other factors, explored further in The experience of employment.

This period saw three major economic downturns—the early 1980s recession, early 1990s recession and the 2008–09 global financial crisis (GFC). Following the 1980s and 1990s recessions, the employment rate for the working-age population fell. It then increased above pre-recession levels (Figure 1). The employment rate was slower to return to pre-recession levels following the 1990s downturn. During the GFC, the employment rate fell from approximately 73% to 72% over mid-2008 to mid-2009. Since mid-2009, the employment rate has moved between a low of 71% and a high of 74% (Figure 1).

In 2018, the female employment rate reached the highest point recorded in Australia at 70%. This rate has risen over the period since the late 1970s. From 1985, at least half of working-age females were employed. The male employment rate peaked at 83% in 1981. It was 79% in December 2018. Male employment declined more through each economic downturn than did female employment.

Unemployment

In a similar manner to the employment rate, the unemployment rate has varied with economic downturns since the late 1970s. The economic downturns in the 1980s and 1990s, in particular the latter, saw unemployment rates maintained at higher rates for a longer period compared with the impact of the GFC (Figure 2).

In December 2018, the unemployment rate for the working-age population was 5.1%, compared with 6.4% in December 1978 (Figure 2). In the same months, the male unemployment rate was 5.0% in 2018, compared with 5.5% in 1978. The female unemployment rate saw the greatest change, at 5.2% in 2018 compared with 8.2% in 1978.

In 2018, the highest rate of unemployment for the working-age population was in Outer regional areas at 6.8%, compared with 2013 where the highest unemployment rate was in Inner regional areas at 6.1% (Figure 3). In 2018, for people aged 15–24, the highest unemployment rate was in Outer regional areas (15.8%). In 2013, the highest unemployment rate for those aged 15–24 was in Remote and very remote areas (11.7%).

Outer regional areas showed the greatest variance in unemployment rates from 2013 to 2018 for both the working-age population and those aged 15–24. Over this period, the unemployment rate rose in Outer regional areas by 31% for the working-age population (5.2% to 6.8%), and 70% for those aged 15–24 (9.3% to 15.8%). The unemployment rate in Major cities remained stable between 2013 and 2018 for the working-age population (5.7% and 5.2% respectively), however it showed greater variance for those aged 15–24 between 2013 and 2018 (11.4% and 10.2% respectively) (ABS 2013, 2018c).

Underemployment

The concept of underemployment relates to the underuse of the productive capacity of the labour force (ABS 2018b). This section focuses on time-related underemployment, which relates to workers reporting insufficient availability of working hours compared with the number of hours they are willing and available to work.

Since the late 1970s, the underemployment rate has trended upwards for males and females in the working-age population (Figure 4). As with employment and unemployment, the rate of underemployment was impacted by economic downturns. The underemployment rate increased during the recession of the early 1990s, but did not return to pre-recession levels. In December 2018, the underemployment rate was 9.0% of employed people aged 15–64, which included 7.0% and 11.2% of the male and female labour force respectively.

Also, females are more likely to be working part time and more likely to prefer part-time hours. Males are more likely to work longer hours and more likely to prefer long hours (AIHW 2017).

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on employment trends, see:

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2013. Survey of Education and Work, May 2013. ABS cat. no. 6227.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2018a. Labour Force, Australia, December 2018. ABS cat. no. 6202.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2018b. Labour Statistics: Concepts, Sources and Methods. ABS cat. no. 6102.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2018c. Survey of Education and Work, May 2018. ABS cat. no. 6227.0. Canberra: ABS.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2017. Australia’s welfare 2017. Australia’s welfare series no. 13. AUS 214. Canberra: AIHW.

Alternative text for figures

Figure 1: Employment rate, by sex, 1978 to 2018

The line graph shows employment trends for the period 1978 to 2018 for the working age population by all persons, males and females. The female employment rate shows the greatest increase over this period. The male employment rate has been consistently higher than the employment rate of all persons over this period, and the female employment rate consistently below the employment rate of all persons.

Figure 2: Unemployment rate, by kind of work looked for, 1978 to 2018

The line graph shows the overall unemployment rate, full time unemployment rate, and part time unemployment rate for the period 1978 to 2018 for the working age population. The overall unemployment rate and full time unemployment rate both spiked in 1983 and 1993. All 2018 unemployment rates are lower than they were in 1978.

Figure 3: Unemployment rate by age and remoteness area, 2013 and 2018

The vertical bar chart shows unemployment rates for 15-24 and 15-64 year olds by remoteness level for both 2013 and 2018. Since 2013, the distribution of unemployment across remoteness areas has changed more for 15-24 year olds. The lowest rate of unemployment for both age groups in 2018 was in Remote and very remote areas.

Figure 4: Underemployment rate yearly averages, by sex, 1978 to 2018

The line chart shows that underemployment has increased over the period since 1978 for people aged 15-64. The male and female underemployment rates have followed similar patterns to the overall rate over this period, however the female rate has been consistently higher while the male rate has been lower than the rate for all persons.