This is a story about dramatic economic change, happening at such a pace and scale that it can no longer be ignored.

At its centre is the ‘social economy’— the more than one million jobs associated with the provision of health and social services Australia-wide. These jobs are tipped to grow by 250,000 over the next five years, and by over 60,000 in Victoria alone. This growth is double that of the next fastest growing jobs segment, professional, scientific and administrative work, which will generate 125,000 new jobs.

However despite this rapid growth, the social economy is largely overlooked in discourses about Victoria’s and Australia’s economic future. Instead, attention is typically given to new jobs in advanced manufacturing, defence, science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and construction.

New major construction projects, like the $11 billion Melbourne Metro and the $6.7 billion Westgate Tunnel, are greeted with headlines proudly announcing thousands of new jobs — 7,000 in the case of the Metro1 and 6,000 in the case of the tunnel2 . Yet these jobs will be temporary, lasting only as long as it takes to build each piece of infrastructure.

Similarly, each new defence contract is greeted with impressive headlines. The $5 billion new light armoured vehicle for the Australian army, for example, promises to generate 500 new jobs. The massive naval ship-building program (costing around $90 billion) will generate 5,200 new jobs in ship-building3 . Again, these jobs are temporary.

Healthcare and social assistance jobs on the other hand, will be permanent. The question now up for debate is the quality of the career pathways being created around them.

Right now, healthcare and social assistance jobs are too often lowly paid, and increasingly casualised. This is a throwback to and a reflection of the old-fashioned view of this work being largely about welfare. What is needed is recognition of the new reality, that social service jobs are part of a modernised, rapidly growing industry and profession.

Social service work tends to be thought of in terms of subsidies, and of being delivered at taxpayers’ expense. In thinking of such work as a social cost to be borne by taxpayers, the tendency is to try to keep costs down, perhaps by drawing cheap labour from abroad, while vastly more expensive technical and engineering jobs are allowed to become more expensive without comment. We do this even though defence and infrastructure are both as dependent on government spending and regulation as healthcare and social assistance.

This paper presents figures around growth in the social economy workforce. It also demonstrates how the way society has historically viewed these types of work reflects a deep-seated gender bias, which sees policy makers preferring jobs in industries that have been traditionally male-dominated and which have accounted for a large chunk of the economy during the 20th century.

It examines the growth of artificial intelligence and its effects on the current and future workforce, and concludes this will not replace the complex work of physical and social services delivered by humans any time soon. As other workforces diminish in the face of rising automation, the social economy workforce will continue to grow.

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