The first batch of 2021 Census data has been released, with important findings highlighting a long-term decline in volunteer numbers.
The eighteenth Census of Population and Housing in Australia was taken on 10 August 2021, when we were in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first release of Census data encompasses topics such as age structure, household types, education levels, incomes, cultural diversity, disability and health, housing tenure and unpaid work.
Reversals to previous upwards trends are a notable feature of this Census. They include a decline in Australia’s unpaid workforce.
Changes to Australia’s unpaid workforce
Some key statistics on unpaid work between the 2016 and 2021 Census counts include:
- Volunteering rates have decreased from 19.0% in 2016 to 14.1% in 2021, a decline of 26%.
- Those volunteer rates have declined across all age brackets, with the decline most pronounced in the 35–54 age bracket.
- The number of people over 55 looking after children not their own (e.g. grandchildren) has declined. Around one in eight (12.6%) of Baby Boomers are looking after children not their own (e.g. grandchildren)
Lindsay Dawson, Philanthropy Research & Insights Manager at Perpetual Limited, has analysed the Census data on volunteers as part of the Perpetual Limited report, ‘Census 2021: Numbers that matter’[i].
Dawson notes “First we need to remember – and celebrate – how crucial volunteers are in everything from sport to the arts to life-saving and life-altering social services.”
Covid restrictions have certainly impacted volunteering, and Dawson questions whether the disruption is more than temporary.
Dawson also points out that financial pressures also hurt volunteer engagement. “Financial stress is a factor. According to the Census, the number of mortgages with payments exceeding $5,000 a month increased 60% since 2016. Pressures on the home balance sheet mean more people are working full-time; however, research tells us that women working part-time do a vast amount of volunteering.”
Charities and their volunteer base
For those charities and NFPs that rely on volunteers, the decline of the unpaid workforce will have an ongoing impact.
Reports from Volunteering Australia and ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods show similar patterns to the Census data, finding that “the total number of hours of volunteering is estimated to have fallen by around 293 million hours over a 12-month period since COVID” and suggesting that “voluntary work has been impacted harder by the COVID-19 recession than paid work”.
Data from the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) also corresponds with the Census information. The ACNC Australian Charities Report identified a consistent volunteer decline over several reporting periods. “3.4 million volunteers helped deliver services in the 2020 reporting period. While the total number remains high, it is a decrease of approximately 220,000 on the previous reporting period. This follows a similar decrease in the reporting period before last.”
The many smaller charities that make up the sector are vulnerable, especially as the majority rely solely on volunteers. “More charities operated without paid staff (51%) than with paid staff (49%),” according to the ACNC.
Reviving our unpaid workforce
A year on from the August 2021 Census, cost of living pressures (mortgages, inflation, fuel prices) have only intensified. At the same time, employment opportunities have increased throughout Australia. With these conditions prevailing, many families prioritise paid work over volunteer work.
At this critical point, any organisation that depends on volunteers to function would benefit from a financial review and advice. Strategies to increase organisational resilience in the future include financial restructures to bolster staffing and upgrade technology, adapting initiatives to smaller pools of volunteers and prioritising volunteer drives.
Contact Next Dimension for more information.
[i] The 2022 report ‘Census 2021: Numbers that matter: A strategic compendium for Australia’s for-purpose leaders, boards and philanthropists ’, produced by Perpetual Limited, data powered by Seer Data & Analytics.