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Economic changes are transforming work through automation, globalisation, and more flexible work.
Work has long been important for the livelihood, dignity, and happiness of humankind. We intuitively and statistically know that work helps us meet our most basic and complex needs, providing a path towards financial security, mental and physical health, dignity and meaning. For at least the past century, the prospect of a good job that pays a fair wage has been part of Australia’s promise to our young people. By many measures, Australia has continued to deliver on its promise. We have enjoyed relatively strong economic growth, high wages and low levels of unemployment.
But beneath the seemingly benign surface of Australia’s labour market, there is a quiet revolution occurring in the way we work. The old ‘blue collar’ part of workforce is barely recognisable today. As the factories in our urban manufacturing suburbs have been closed down or automated, the manual jobs they once provided have been decimated. Over the past 25 years, we have lost around 100,000 machinery operator jobs, nearly 400,000 labourers, and nearly 250,000 jobs from the technicians and trades. Offsetting these losses, there has been an explosion of more than 400,000 new jobs in community and personal services. The work revolution is no less visible in what we used to call ‘white collar’ jobs. Computers have swept through corporate towers and small business offices, displacing nearly 500,000 secretaries and clerks. At the same time, the increasing complexity of business processes and financial markets has created 700,000 new jobs across the professional and business services.
While our unemployment rate may be low, our factory floor workers have not seamlessly switched their hard hats for a healthcare job. Instead, unskilled workers, especially men, have stepped out of the labour force on mass. Over the past 25 years, nearly one in ten unskilled men lost their jobs and did not return to the labour force. Today, more than one in four unskilled men don’t participate. Big economic shifts are not costless for everyone.