HILDA examines how Australians are balancing work and home

A woman sits at her kitchen table working on a laptop. A man and two children are in the background.
The latest HILDA survey reveals how Australians are balancing their work and home lives.

The latest release of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey paints a picture of how Australians are juggling their work and home lives.

HILDA, Australia’s only nationally representative longitudinal household survey, finds the number of Australians in paid work continues to rise, particularly among women, who saw their employment rate hit 71 per cent – the highest in the history of the survey.

The types of employment are changing. Fixed-term contracts have gained in prevalence among most age groups, but most markedly among workers between 25 and 34 years.

Despite concern around the casualisation of the workforce, casual contracts have declined in all groups but the very young.

Commuting times on the rise

This year’s HILDA report also examined how long it is taking Australians to get to work, revealing that commuting times have on average increased by 23 per cent in 15 years.

In 2002, workers averaged 3.7 hours commuting time per week; by 2017, this number had risen to 4.5 hours.

Workers in the mainland capital cities now spend an average of almost 66 minutes travelling to and from work each day. Sydneysiders have consistently fared the worst, with the longest average daily commutes for the duration of the survey.

Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research academic Dr Inga Lass – the report’s co-author – said this is having broader impacts on Australians.

“Workers with long commutes proved to be less satisfied with their working hours, work-life balance and even pay, and they are more likely to look for a new job than workers with short commutes,” Dr Lass said.

Overall, men are more likely than women to have long commutes, particularly fathers with dependent children.

Who are the breadwinners?

Over the past 17 years, the share of couples where the woman earns more than her partner has risen from 22 per cent to 25 per cent.

However, most of this growth was in couples where the partners actually earned quite similar salaries.

Melbourne Institute Deputy Director and report co-author Professor Roger Wilkins said there had been very little growth in couples in which the female could be regarded as the primary breadwinner. Moreover, females who are primary breadwinners tend to support households on lower levels of income.

Within couples where the male is the primary source of household income, the man has an average annual salary of $107 366, compared to $73 988 per year for female breadwinners—a difference of 45 per cent.

“Situations in which the female is the primary source of household income tend to be more short-lived than the male breadwinner arrangement,” Professor Wilkins said.

“Among couples, less than 60 per cent of women who are the breadwinners in their household still have that arrangement five years later, whereas more than 80 per cent of males who are the primary income earners are still breadwinners five years later.”

Work-life conflict  

How Australians perceive the impact of work on their family life has also shifted over the years.

Among the majority of couples, at least one partner experiences high levels of work-family conflict, that is, when work demands negatively impact on family life.

“In 2001, fathers had significantly higher levels of work-family conflict than mothers, since then, we’ve seen their conflict scores decrease, while that of mothers’ have risen,”  Dr Lass said.

The data reveals working hours are key to understanding this gender gap – the longer hours a parent works, the higher their work-family conflict score.

“Once we account for working hours, it is mothers who have the highest levels of work-family conflict, ” Dr Lass said.

"In other words, most working mothers achieve a better balance between work and family spheres by working only part-time hours. But while part-time work frees up time for family, it comes with repercussions on earnings, career trajectory, and superannuation balances."

According to the HILDA Survey, single parents have significantly higher conflict scores than couple parents.

Australians who have a bachelor’s degree or a higher educational attainment have significantly higher conflict scores than those with lower education. Also, shift workers also have higher work–family conflict scores than those working a regular daytime schedule.

Depression and anxiety

This year’s report also highlights the large increase in the number of Australians reporting diagnosed depression and anxiety, most notably in young people.

Young women aged between 15 and 34 now have the highest level of diagnosed depression and anxiety, increasing from 13 per cent in 2009 to 20 per cent in 2017.

The survey also found:

  • The majority of parents have experienced some sort of difficulty over the last 12 months when using or thinking about using child care. Parents and guardians are increasingly worried about the cost of childcare. The top three difficulties are: cost, finding care for a sick child and finding care at short notice.
  • After a period of decline, poverty has increased slightly: The proportion of the population below the poverty line has fluctuated over time, but the broad trend has been downwards. This is especially true since 2007, when 12.4 per cent of the population was in relative poverty. By 2016, the proportion in poverty had fallen to 9.6 per cent. However, in 2017, relative poverty increased to 10.4 per cent.
  • The number of young adults living with their parents has significantly increased: 47 per cent of men and 37 per cent of women aged 18-29 lived with their parents in 2001; in 2017, these figures were 56 per cent and 54 per cent.
  • Strong intra-family relationship in drug use: Almost a third of respondents whose mother reports a history of cannabis use have themselves used an illicit drug in the past year, compared to 12.7 per cent of those whose mother has reported no history of cannabis use.

The HILDA Survey tells the stories of the same group of Australians over the course of their lives. Starting in 2001, the Survey now tracks more than 17 500 people in 9500 households and will continue to grow as families expand.

It is funded by the Australian Government’s Department of Social Services.