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Comparing generations and the nine dimensions of our well-being

Most Australian voters are either Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964), Generation Xers (1965 to 1980) or Millennials (1981 to 1996). And at one time or another most have been told that their generation is better off (or worse off) than the ones that came before it.

It’s tempting to think the most recent generation is always the worst off, with all the talk about the cost of living and other things in election campaigns.

But without data, or living the lives of other generations, it is hard to be sure.

Boomers are currently aged 58 to 76. They were 25-35 between 1971 and 1996. Gen Xers are currently 42-57 and were 25-35 between 1990 and 2015. Millennials are in their 20s and 30s right now.

For most of the dimensions of well-being in which we are interested, the questions turn out to be surprisingly easy to answer, so long as we remember that the data tells us a lot about lives on average, and little about the lives of individuals.

In a study prepared for the Australian National University’s Tax and Transfer Policy Institute I’ve attempted to provide answers for nine dimensions of well-being, used by the OECD, comparisons, ranging from income to housing, to personal safety to inequality.

Income and wealth

Net national disposable income per capita has been climbing over time, meaning that Millennials aged 25-35 are 51% better off than Generation Xers were at that age, and 91% better off than Boomers at that age. 

And those figures are likely to understate how much better off their standard of living is.

The quality and range of goods and services from food to cars to healthcare to computers to mobile phones with cameras has improved in ways figures can’t capture. Many didn’t exist in the 1970s.

Although the Bureau of Statistics attempts to adjust its measures for improvements in quality, it concedes its efforts are incomplete. The Bureau’s underestimation of quality improvements is likely to be significant.



Millennials are also wealthier than Gen Xers and Boomers were at the same age, although recently the wealth of older Australians has been climbing more rapidly than the wealth of younger Australians, due in large measure to home prices.

Offsetting this, in due course, should be big inheritances passed from Boomers to Gen-Xers and Millennials.

Housing 

Millennials aged 25 to 34 are much less likely to own their homes than Boomers were at the same age.

Among those aged 25-34, home ownership has fallen from 60% in 1976 to 37% in 2017-18.

While much of this is due to prohibitively high prices, some is due to Millennials finishing education and entering the workforce and marrying later.

It should be noted that Millennials who do own a home are no worse off in terms of payments relative to income than were Boomers. But getting a deposit (unless there’s an offer from the bank of mum and dad) has become much more difficult.

Private rents have been remarkably constant over the past 25 years, at about 18% of average household income.



Rents for low earners (in the bottom fifth) remain extraordinarily high, in Sydney taking up about 30% of household income. But this isn’t a generational problem. Low earners’ rents have been high and stable as a share of income for decades.

What is a problem for the most disadvantaged is that public housing has slid from 5.8% of the housing stock in the late 1990s to about 3% today.

Work 

Women are much more likely to be in paid employment than 40 years ago.

Whereas in 1978, when Boomers were aged 25-35, only 40% of women were in paid work, by 2018 when Millennials were that age, a record 57% were paid workers, a proportion that climbed even higher during COVID to an unprecedented 60%.

Men are less likely to be employed. Whereas in 1978, 75% of men were paid workers, male employment fell to 67% in 1998 when Gen-Xers were 25-35, and stayed there when Millennials were that age in 2018.



And there has been a major shift from blue-collar to white collar work. As detailed in the Intergenerational Report, in 1966, machinery operators and drivers comprised 11% of the workforce, and technicians and tradespeople 21%. By 2016 these proportions had almost halved to 6% and 14%.

The share of the workforce employed in (generally less physically-demanding) professional jobs has doubled, while the share employed in personal service jobs nearly tripled. Arguably these changes mean more pleasant working conditions.

Work is also more part-time - the proportion of the workforce employed part-time has doubled, climbing from 15% in 1978 to 30% – and more casual. In 1988 only 19% of the workforce was employed in jobs without leave entitlements. By 1998 the proportion had climbed to 27%, and has since declined to 22.5%.

Health  

Australians are taller and heavier than half a century ago, in part because of better nutrition, but we are more obese. Between 2007-08 and 2014-15 the proportion of children defined as overweight and obese women has climbed from 24.7% to 26.4%

Despite this, the extra years of life expected by men who reach 65 have climbed dramatically, from 12.3 years for a Boomer born in 1953-54, to 19.6 for a Millennial born in 1994-96, to 22.3 for a man born more recently.

The extra years of life for a woman at age 65 has climbed from 15 to 19.6 to 22.3.



Importantly, the Institute of Health and Welfare finds most of the additional years are healthy years, with the proportion of lives spent in ill health little changed.

Suicide rates have fallen for women (from 7.8 per 100,000 females in the 1970s to 5.7 in the 2010s) but not for men (where they remained at about 18 per 100,000).

On the other hand, both men and women experienced major increases in reported anxiety and mood disorders, with the proportion of women reporting anxiety climbing from 12% to 16% between 1997 and 2017, and the proportion of men climbing from 7% to 11%. But harmful alcohol use and illicit drug use fell.

Education 

Millennials are much more educated (in terms of post-school qualifications) than Baby Boomers or Generation X.

Between 1975 and 2016 the proportion of men with a tertiary qualification climbed from less than 4% to 20% and the proportion of women with a tertiary qualification from less than 2% to 24%.

The benefits for those with degrees go beyond the financial. The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics survey finds they extend to well-being, social interactivity and healthy behaviours, such as physical activity and abstaining from drinking and smoking.

Safety  

Between 1996 and 2016 victims of homicide and related offences fell 50%, victims of robbery fell 56%, victims of motor vehicle theft fell 65% and victims of other theft fell by 21%.

Reported sexual assaults moved in the opposite direction, climbing from 80 per 100,000 people in 1996 to 95 in 2016.

Driving on roads has become far safer. Between 1976 and 2016 road deaths per 100,000 people fell from 25.5 to 5.3.

Overseas, far more Australians (many of them conscripts) died in the Vietnam war than in Afghanistan, making the toll from overseas conflicts the greatest for Boomers, much less for Millennials and nonexistent for Generation Xers.

Loneliness and connections 

The proportion of Australians actively engaged in community organisations fell from 33% in 1967 to 18% in 200, with major declines in church attendance, membership of unions and political parties, and participation in organised sport.

Whereas in the Boomer year of 1984, Australians had an average of nine trusted friends each, by the Gen-X year of 2018 that number had fallen to five.

In 1984, people could drop in on 10 neighbours. By 2018, it was only four. Seven per cent of people who could not drop in on a single neighbour in 1984. By 2018 it had climbed to 17%.

Offsetting this to some extent is evidence of substantial volunteer work in the recent floods and bushfires, social support services that did not exist 20 or 30 years ago, and the increasing use of online communication.

Environment 

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration finds the past seven years have been the hottest in recorded history.

The CSIRO finds that Australia’s climate has warmed on average by 1.44°C since national records began in 1910, and the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change expects Australia to suffer more from longer and hotter summers and more frequent bush fires than the rest of the world.

More than 1,700 Australian species and ecological communities face extinction.

Only partially offsetting this for Millennials are less air and water pollution than in the 1970s, less water use, and better building standards.

Inequality 

While the economy Millennials entered their 20s and 30s is richer than in earlier generations, its wealth and income are less equally distributed.

The Productivity Commission finds income inequality has increased “modestly” since the 1980s and wealth inequality by more.

Between 2003-04 and 2015-16 the wealth of the poorest tenth of households climbed not at all, while the wealth of middle-earners climbed 27%, and the wealth of the top tenth by nearly 40%, largely due to growing superannuation balances and home prices.

Overall outcome depends on what is valued

Assessing the overall position of Millennial voters compared to Gen-X and Baby Boomer voters requires value judgements about the dimensions that matter the most, and also judgements about the future, including the ways in which Australia will buffeted by and respond to potential major threats including climate change, social media and the erosion of privacy, and conventional and cyber warfare.


Peter Abelson wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Aliya Gul, a Millennial.The Conversation

Peter Abelson is an Economist with Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

 

18 Comments
Marti Edwards
June 05, 2022

Excellent reading, both the article and the study. Sent it to my Grand daughter to study, as we are always debating the changing times. I am of the opinion that it was just as difficult for the Baby Boomers as for the Millennials to achieve economic well being, no use making excuses for not trying.
Barry you are right about the Baby Boomers being happier. It was easier and simpler to be happy in the eighties.

5.Generational happiness: In my opinion, Baby boomers in general are the happier generation. Most of them started from nothing, did have to work, while putting themselves through higher education, did not rely on government handouts, (there was hardly any), they were told by their parents to stand on their own feet, so they had no other choice but to work and achieve.
Happiness was in the journey itself and as we know, it's only a attitude. Surround yourself with positive people and you will be happy.
I remember times when I was making a choice between buying a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread. They both cost 20 cents each. Funny as it may seem, I remember how happy I was going through a young life with full of financial difficulties.
I am forever grateful for living in a country where I was not limited by being a woman, a migrant, where I always felt secure in the knowledge that I can achieve security by just relying on myself.

Cam
May 29, 2022

Increased wealth due to house prices creates a city v regions wealth divide.
Does data include government handouts, such as free uni and childcare for funding, first home owner subsidies, etc?
As Gen X I feel we keep missing handouts, but I wouldn’t swap

Sean
May 28, 2022

1. National disposable income is not informative because we do not know what the age distribution of the disposable income is and how it has changed over time. Maybe it is all enjoyed by people who own houses and have huge super balances.
2. As the commenter above pointed out, the age expectancy over age 65 is only relevant when the age cohort reaches 65 - for boomers that is now. We have no way to make a reliable estimate for any younger group.

Lorraine
May 29, 2022

Stop whinging

Ben
May 30, 2022

Jeez, predicting the future is inherently unreliable. Even your point about boomers over 65 being now and therefore relevant is a nonsense. We won't be able to "know" the age expectancy of boomers until they are all dead. At which point there will be no more expectancy.

I would not be at all surprised if the age expectancy predictions in the article turn out to be highly predictive I.e. close to what actually happens in the future.

David Orford
May 27, 2022

Outstanding article that blows away myths. One factor is that earlier generations than us Baby Busters are far better off than we were at earlier ages. So why should we leave our assets to them? Were we left large legacies by our parents? So why don’t we purchase annuities and maximise our income and lifestyles while we can?

John
May 29, 2022

I agree an outstanding article. Just be careful with annuities.

Ian Hunter
May 27, 2022


The comment under "Inequality" that the wealth of the poorest 10% has not climbed seems unfortunate. But when you consider that the poorest 10% have almost no wealth,and what they own is non-housing durable goods (TV's, cars, mobile phones, furniture) which have dropped in price while improving in quality and functionality, then you realize they are much better off too.

Michael
May 27, 2022

good to see an attempt at real research in this space instead of sweeping generalisations

Alexander Stitt
May 26, 2022

Great to read this comparison. Very balanced and interesting.

Andrew Smith
May 26, 2022

Good analytical overview and the sort of informative data and analysis the ABS should support more of to inform not just the govt. but society too.

Paul B
May 26, 2022

Interesting comparisons - thankyou Gentlemen

Anthony Asher
May 26, 2022

The table on life expectancy is misleading. The 12.3 life expectancy for men of 65 in 1953-54 applies to those of that age in that year. For those now 65, life expectancy is 19.6. Mortality rates are expected to continue to reduce but are threatened by increasing obesity. If we follow the USA, life expectancy may be lower for younger generations. There are aspects of the environment other than global warming that are worse. More cars on roads and more people everywhere mean it is much more difficult to enjoy "unspoiled" nature.

Pat Connelan
May 26, 2022

If baby boomers were born between 1946-64, how does that match with boomers in 1978 being aged between 25 and 35? The youngest boomers that year were only 14, the oldest were 32.

Jan H
May 29, 2022

Pat C: I agree. Another error if Boomers were born between 1946-64 (an 18 year span), then a boomer born in 1946 would be 25 in 1971 and 50 in 1996. A Boomer born in 64 would be 7 in 1971 and 32 in 1996."

Abel
May 27, 2022

In the context of this comparison, is not incorrect. It shows back then, what was your life expectancy when you were born. You are thinking about the life expectancy of a boomer who was born back then and is still alive today. Having survived your first year (when mortality is higher) and with current medical advances, you will now be expected to have a better chance to live to a longer age.

Barry Gration
May 29, 2022

Economic studies work in areas that are quantified. In that regard we're all better off. But are we happier?
1. " it is much more difficult [these days] to enjoy "unspoiled" nature." Yes, that's a major cost of modernism.
2. Safety: And we're certainly more fearful - it's a crime, these days, for kids to have the freedom we took for granted - because "it's not safe". For example, Scouts can't go on unsupervised hikes like we did - their leaders would be in strife for allowing it. So we are safer but yet more fearful.
3. Overall: "Social media and the erosion of privacy" - this constant social surveillance by anyone and everyone streaming stuff on to the internet is a real barrier to spontaneous mucking around.
4. Health: "..both men and women experienced major increases in reported anxiety and mood disorders, .... But harmful alcohol use and illicit drug use fell." Perhaps we feel more anxious because prim social pressure is cutting us off from stress relievers like booze and smokes?
5. Generational happiness: I'm now 67. My father was 67 in 1985. No home computers, no mobile phones etc etc. Thinking back carefully, I think he was happier then than I am now.

Russell (a veteran adviser)
May 30, 2022

Good qualitative commentary, Barry. Points to the deficiencies of quantitative data analysis.

 

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