Positive and negative changes to Australia’s social landscape: index

Fri, 22 Sep 2023

A new report from the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute has found noteworthy changes to Australia’s collective wellbeing over the past 15 years.

The Australian Cohesion Index 2023 found enhancements in overall health and levels of education, alongside decreases in trust of the federal government and a decline in the sense of national pride and belonging.

The index is a research initiative that aggregates data from key sources. It provides a comprehensive understanding of the nation’s social landscape and covers four themes: trust in society, belonging and engagement, economic material wellbeing, and health and wellbeing. Each theme chapter includes commentary from an expert in that area, including Danielle Wood (current CEO of the Grattan Institute and Chair-designate of the Productivity Commission) about trust in society.

Anthea Hancocks, CEO of the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute and the Scanlon Foundation (a Philanthropy Australia member), said the 2023 report provides important insight into Australia’s progress.

“Although mental health challenges and inequities still exist, overall we’ve observed positive trends in life expectancy and health with the majority of Australians rating their health as good if not very good or excellent, with less inclination to smoke or drink alcohol at dangerous levels than in past years,” Ms Hancocks said.

“Similarly, despite the cost-of-living pressures and associated financial stress, the economy has continued to grow and we’ve seen high levels of educational attainment with an increase of 47% since 2008 of adults with a university degree. These are all positive indicators for our economic future,” she said.

Dr James O’Donnell, author and lead researcher of the index said that there were declines in important areas of social cohesion.

“The 2023 report indicates we have some work to do in building trust in government and the political system. Trust increased during the COVID-19 pandemic but has declined since 2021,” Dr O’Donnell said.

“Although trust in fellow citizens remains high, young adults and people experiencing financial difficulties are the least trusting in society which highlights some important social inequalities,” he said.

“Equally, the decline in our sense of national belonging and involvement in our communities is particularly notable in young people and those struggling financially. We’ve seen a drop of 27% over the last 15 years in those who have a great sense of belonging in Australia. This is concerning as a sense of belonging describes the extent to which we feel connected to others and is a critical driver of social cohesion,” he said.

The index and philanthropy

Ms Hancocks highlighted that the index is an important resource for the philanthropic community. 

“The Australian Cohesion Index brings together a range of indicators that provide a very clear picture of many of the issues confronting society today. As such it provides an invaluable resource for those hoping to make a difference in areas of real need,” she said.

“We can see that the sense of belonging is declining, there are health inequities and young people are feeling disconnected. The report can provide context for existing contributions or it can assist in focusing granting programs to bring about real impact.”

This report is also useful to those in the not-for-profit sector who want a range of data to support their work and the need for support. 

“Of course, if we could channel philanthropy and community actions to improve just one of the indicators then it would be exciting to see if, when it is measured again in two years’ time, we have been able to make a real difference,” Ms Hancocks said.

Key insights

Takeaways from the Australian Cohesion Index 2023:

  • Amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, trust in the federal government initially increased but has declined since 2021. Trust in fellow citizens, however, remained high throughout 2022.
  • Australians experience good health and longer life expectancies, with positive trends in wellbeing.
  • Educational attainment rates are high and growing.
  • Standardised test scores in schools show stability at best and potential decline, indicating room for educational improvements.
  • The strong labour market has helped mitigate economic challenges, despite financial pressures.
  • Recognition and support for multiculturalism and diversity are growing.
  • National pride and belonging declined, particularly among young adults and financially challenged individuals.
  • Economic growth is evident, but financial pressures, including housing stress, impact more Australians.
  • Persistent mental health challenges exacerbated by the pandemic disproportionately affect marginalised communities.

Read more and download the full Australian Cohesion Index 2023 report at: https://aci.scanloninstitute.org.au/