Australian Men and the Future of Work

02 November 2020




(Acknowledgements omitted)

Today, we’re not here for any old policy conversation. Our ideas about men and work run very deep, in Australia in particular. 

Many of you will know that in the 19th Century, Australia was known as the Working Man’s Paradise. Colonial societies had thrown off the class structures that dictated life in Europe. Working class Australians – as long as they were white, and male – could live a life of wealth and freedom here unlike anywhere else in the world. 

That was the golden run, from the 1850s to the 1880s. But in the 1890s, Australia descended into a horrible recession. The economy shrank by 30 percent in two years; a third of breadwinners were unemployed. Many Australians lived in unspeakable poverty: families crowded into shanties, women and children begged for food on the streets, dressed in rags.

The Federation was created in this moment of possibility – but also fear – for what life in Australia could be. The Working Man’s Paradise was enshrined in our system from the start: the Australian Labor Party, the union movement, the Harvester Judgment, universal suffrage, the White Australia Policy.  

These laws and institutions – the good and the very, very bad – gave expression to the resolve that these new Australians felt 120 years ago: that our country would be one in which working men could provide for their families.

Our ideas about men and the work they do are deeply ingrained in our society and our culture.

Today, I’m going to talk about four things. First, how men are experiencing the COVID recession. Second, how big structural economic change has affected them over the last generation. Third, what we can do to create a better future of work for Australian men. And finally, I want to talk about the politics: why the problems I will discuss today – despite causing so much immense pain to men, their partners, children and communities – are not getting the open discussion they deserve.

This speech is part of a series about how different groups of Australians will be affected by the future of work. Women and men experience economic change differently, in part because Australia’s labour market is highly gender segregated.

Construction is 98% male, early childhood education is 95% female. Gender segregation is also evident in the way we manage our households. 73% of Australian men say they are the breadwinner in their family, 86% of Australian women say they do most of the housework. 

I am deeply concerned about the future of work for Australian women. In June, I gave a detailed speech on this subject, focused on how COVID had laid bare some unique challenges women face in the work they do and how much more government could be doing about those problem. 

Today, my focus is on Australian men. And I want to have a conversation that’s open, is based in fact, and allows for nuance.

When we talk about men and work, an assumption I often hear is that men are the big winners in the world of work. 

For some Australian men, that’s completely accurate. If we divide the Australian population up by skill, gender and geography, there’s one group that’s doing much better relative to others. It’s highly educated men, living in our cities. Not everyone who fits this description is doing well, especially right now. But on average, these are the best-off people in Australia. Both in real terms, but also in trajectory: our growing, knowledge economy is, in general, giving economic rewards to people who fit this description. 

But if you step outside the masters of the universe narrative, you’ll note that most Australian men do not fit this description. Today, I’m here to talk about, in particular, the roughly 40% of Australian men who are of working age today who did not get to study much beyond high school. That’s about 3.3 million people.

Again, nuance: some of the men who fit this description are thriving, flourishing, and highly skilled via long years of on-the-job training. But on average, these men are experiencing a period of protracted economic decline. This is a problem that needs and deserves our attention. 

Men and the COVID Recession 

A lot of the gender commentary on the pandemic and recession so far has focused on Australian women. That was appropriate, and there is no doubt that the first wave of the recession did hurt women terribly.

Today I want to talk about how this recession is evolving, and how this will change the gender dynamics. 

To do that, it helps to look at the recession in distinct phases. 

First, we had the artificial phase. Australian governments shut down parts of the economy to protect Australians from COVID. 

The sectors most affected at that time were hospitality, accommodation, parts of the healthcare and education systems. We know also that casual workers were more likely to be laid off, and also more likely to miss out on JobKeeper. 

All those changes affected women more than men, because women dominate the worst affected shutdown sectors, and women are more likely to work casually or part-time. Compounding these issues was the astronomical increase in the childcare burden, which women bore the brunt of. 

Now, the recession is moving into an organic phase. That is, that initial suppression of economic activity is bleeding into most other sectors of the economy. An artificial recession is morphing into a normal one. 

Recessions bring two types of economic impacts. 

They bring business cycle effects – that is, people stop shopping and travelling and buying. Businesses don’t invest as much in equipment and machinery. Everything slows down, fewer staff are needed and workers are laid off or put on minimal hours. 

Recessions also bring structural change. Many businesses will use the downturn to change how they do things – push automation, offshore processes, outsource parts of their business. And the end result for workers is bad: job losses, or good permanent jobs being replaced by poorer-paid, insecure ones. 

Qantas is a good example. Despite having received $800 million from the Australian taxpayer, the company has decided to permanently shed 6,000 workers. In addition to that, Qantas recently moved to outsource the operation of its entire ground crew. That will see 2,500 quality union jobs replaced by probably less secure, probably less-well paid positions. And of the ground crew workers, almost all are male.

McKinsey has done some research which shows where the job losses lie ahead as the organic recession sets in. That work shows that some of the hardest hit industries running into March next year will be construction (88% male), manufacturing (73% male) and professional services (lawyers, consultants - of which 57% are male). 

McKinsey estimates that when JobKeeper and JobSeeker are withdrawn up to March next year, just under half a million jobs will be lost. Our analysis suggests that more than 60% of those jobs will be lost by men. 

In other words, while women lost more work in the first phase of the recession, the analysis I am releasing today shows that as we transition into the organic phase, there is a tsunami coming for workers in predominantly male industries. 

Indeed, this gender switch has already just shown up in the national statistics. The Australian Bureau of Statistics monthly labour force data shows that by September 2020 men were more likely to be unemployed as a result of the COVID recession. The male unemployment rate is now 7.14% compared to female 6.71%, and male unemployment has risen more than female unemployment during the COVID period. 

Women are still more likely to be underemployed than men (as they were before COVID) but the increase to the share of underemployed is higher for men than women. The male underemployment rate has increased by 3.5% since March, and the female underemployment rate has increased by 1.5%.

And, more men than women have left the labour market since a year ago. That means that not only are they not working, they have given up looking for work. There are 47,000 fewer women in the labour force since this time last year, but 82,800 fewer men. The numbers are closer when we measure from March this year, but still show that more men have now left the labour force than women during the COVID period.

It’s not a competition between the genders, especially when it comes to who is doing it tougher in a bloody awful recession. The point I am making is not that women are not suffering. Of course they are. 

My point is that everyone is suffering. 

Women had it worse to begin with. Now it is men, and there is evidence that as the months progress, we may see more of this.

But, I do have to note here that when women were clearly worst affected, it generated a very lively political conversation. And now that men are more severely affected, it feels like a problem we are less comfortable talking about. Just an observation, and more on that later.

Men and Structural Economic Change  

I want to step back from COVID now and look at the broader landscape.

Australia’s economy has completely transformed since the 1980s as a result of globalisation, trade, and automation. 

The combined effects of these forces have meant that activities that are labour intensive and exportable have been sent offshore.

Services are harder to export, and that’s part of the reason why so many more Australians today work in services jobs than was the case in 1980.  

Automation is an important part of the story. Since the 1980s, many Australian businesses have at least partly replaced routine kinds of work with robotics or other technologies. 

The gender dynamics are obvious. The kind of work that has historically been done by men which didn’t require extensive classroom style education, has been manual work. And the industries most affected – agriculture, manufacturing, for example – are dominated by male workers. 

The changes I’ve described here aren’t all bad. Australia is vastly more wealthy than it was in 1980. The forces I have described have created a lot of jobs, and complemented many others. The problem, as is so common with economic change, is that the new jobs require skills and interests that don’t necessarily match up with the people who have just lost theirs. And these changes have particularly hurt the 3.3 million men I described at the beginning of my speech.

What do we know about what happens to workers whose jobs have been lost due to this type of economic change? The best evidence we have is from large-scale manufacturing shutdowns. And according to multiple studies here and overseas, the answer is ‘a third, a third, a third’. 

A third find full-time work elsewhere. A third end up underemployed, in a lower quality job. And a third never work again. 

Today I am releasing some new Australian Bureau of Statistics data which demonstrates how the participation of Australian men in work has changed just over the last 15 years. Note that these numbers are pre-COVID – the situation will look considerably worse today but these numbers give you a sense of how fast things have deteriorated even in the context of a growing economy.

Participation is a good one to look at because for men of working age, they tend not to be out of the workforce voluntarily. 

According to the ABS, the participation rate of men of working age who did not complete a post-school qualification fell from 83.4% in 1994 to 73.6% in 2019. What this tells us is that for this group, one in four are not in the labour force at all, and that this dropped by 10 points over about 20 years.

In 1994, of those employed in this group, 94% were in full time work. But by 2019, only 73% were working full time. 

For many of these men, significant drops occurred just in the last five years. For men with a Certificate I or II qualification, their share of full time employment dropped from 82% to 77% just in the last five years.  

These dramatic falls all happened in a growing economy. I shudder to think what will happen to those men now that the economy is going backwards and wage subsidies are about to be removed, just when they are most urgently needed. 

I won’t go into detail here, but the numbers look very different across different parts of the country. Coffs Harbour, for example, saw a 10 percentage point decline in the participation rate of men who didn’t study much beyond high school between 2013 and 2019.

Like for women, COVID is not necessarily creating new problems for Australian male workers. In many instances, it is exacerbating a situation that was already pretty dire.

So, what do we do? 

There are simply no two ways about it. As our economy has shifted and changed, more rewards and choices are flowing to the better educated and skilled, and that is likely to continue.

This is not a pitch for more men to go to university. I’m much more concerned with the men who are not getting the support they need to finish school, or go beyond. And as I said upfront, this is not a small problem: millions of men in the workforce today are in this situation. Right before the pandemic over 400,000 of these men couldn’t get the hours they need or couldn’t get a job at all.  That’s an underutilised group of men about the size of the population of Canberra. 

Finishing school in today’s economy is crucial, and I’m not sure if we’ve done enough to explain this to Australian kids. My dad left school in Year 10 and went on to run his own publishing business. That was Australia in the old days. We don’t live in that country anymore and we haven’t for a while. 

And yet still today, 25% of young men do not finish high school. 

These issues start early. There is plenty of expert evidence which shows that many, many Australian boys are not being particularly well served by our approach to education. And indeed, this is a problem which has gotten worse, not better, over the previous 20 years. 

Boys are on average a full school year behind girls in reading. They are less likely to finish Year 12, and there are very substantial differences between groups of boys – with boys in regional and rural areas, and Indigenous boys, needing the particular attention of policy-makers. For some of these kids, going to school makes them feel like a failure every day. Why would they stick with it?

Thankfully there are some incredible programs out there which show the huge benefits of taking a different approach. Hands On Learning started in Frankston 21 years ago but has since spread across 110 schools in four states. It takes students who are at high risk of disengagement – most of them are boys – and teaches them skills, leadership and community services outside the classroom. At the end of the program, Hands On Learning graduates have an unemployment rate of 2.2% versus 10.8% of young Australians generally.  

Everton Park State School in Queensland is another example – the big focus in senior years is on practical work, and setting kids up for a solid transition straight into the skills sector. 

While I am on the subject of skills, the Liberals’ savage cuts to this sector have deeply exacerbated the problems that I’m talking about today and this deserves huge national focus. Since their time in office, the Abbot/Turnbull/Morrison governments have cut $3.6 billion from trades training. There are 140,000 fewer apprentices in training today than when the Liberals took office. 

What’s gutting about these numbers is that Australia has skills shortages in a number of trades, including carpenters, plumbers, and metalworkers.

So there are jobs there for some of these men – and indeed women. But without the training, we’re importing these skills from overseas. A total policy failure. 

I’ve said that the economy of the future will continue to provide outsized rewards to skilled workers. That’s true, but we are not completely unable to shape how our economy grows. We want to live in a country where quality jobs exist for everyone. And that’s why the discussion about reviving manufacturing is so incredibly important.

Anthony Albanese has spoken consistently since becoming Labor Leader about his commitment to this task. There is a great economic and social opportunity here for the taking. I only wish I could say the same about our opponents. They are making some of the right noises, but as usual, when it comes to delivering on their commitments they are nowhere to be seen.

The recent federal budget earmarked $1.5 billion to revive Australian manufacturing – but we have recently learned that just $40 million will be spent this financial year. This, in the first recession in Australia for thirty years. The lack of urgency is insulting.

A final point I want to make here is about quality jobs. We want Australian jobs, at every skill level, to be jobs that workers can count on. Since Bob Hawke was elected Prime Minister, Australia has become significantly more wealthy, but also less equal. I believe that Australians still want to live in an egalitarian country. But if we want that, we are going to have to fight for it.

Today, a third of Australians don’t have paid sick leave. Labour hire, and the many other ways used to get around fair wages and conditions, are rife. More than a million workers, even in the good times, don’t have the hours they need to get by. Wages growth is anaemic. Underpayment of workers across certain industries is the ordinary way of doing business.

Much of this is down to the Parliament. Good laws – and the enforcement of those laws – is the only answer to many of these problems. I don’t think we should be particularly surprised that after seven years of a Liberal Government in Canberra, these problems are so prevalent. It will be down to us – Labor people, union people – to fix them.  

What does the Working Man’s Paradise mean today?

One hundred and twenty years after Federation, it’s clear that Australia is no Working Man’s Paradise. Or more accurately, it is for some men, but not for many others.

So who has the answers? 

Let me start with my political opponents. Stark declines in the opportunities of many Australian men have occurred while the Liberals and Nationals have had their hands on the levers of power. They promised to build dams, and develop regional economies; they haven’t delivered. They’ve slashed funding for skills and apprenticeships. They haven’t done anything about chronic wage stagnation, or labour hire, and they sat on their hands while penalty rates were cut.

Labor people and the labour movement are having a real, meaningful conversation about these subjects. Indeed, as a long-term Infrastructure Minister, Albo has probably done more to help create quality jobs for Australian men than just about anyone in politics today.

But there’s a broader political culture here that I worry isn’t leading to the kind of open discussion that we need to move forward. We are clearly comfortable talking about issues that primarily affect women – and that’s brilliant, and important. But I wonder if we feel the same freedom to give unapologetic focus to some of the issues I’ve discussed today.

It worries me because there are some crucial questions here that we need to talk about. We are building an economy where physical strength is not as highly valued as it used to be. What does this mean for many men? The fastest jobs growth in our economy is in the care economy, where men are really thin on the ground. Shouldn’t we be concerned about that, and what do we do? Many Australian boys are not getting what they need from the education system. What needs to change?

These are big, national problems. But at times, the discussion about issues affecting men feels truly fraught.

One problem I see is that the public conversation – like so much of the political discussion today – feels to me very polarised. One viewpoint is that women have things worse, so mens’ issues shouldn’t be in focus. The other says men are the victims, and the ones that need their rights protected. There is a hell of a lot of space in the middle here. Surely we want a debate which argues that the advancement of women is right and important, but that also allows for an open discussion about the place of men in the new society and economy.

We want men to engage in these discussions, but I hear a public conversation that seems to infer that all men are one homogenous group – and that’s a barrier.  It is absolutely the case that a group of economically and socially privileged men are the big winners in the future of work. But for many Australian men, things are going backwards. The public discussion just doesn’t reflect their reality.

And I worry because if we don’t do a really good job at expressing these concerns in politics, more Australian men and women will look to the fringes – to political shysters like One Nation – for that conversation. And that’s terribly, terribly bad for our country.

None of this changes the fact that there is a lot of male behaviour out there that is violent, misogynist, insulting, dangerous and generally despicable. I could not hold this conduct in more contempt.

But the majority of men – of course – are decent. They lie awake at night worrying about how they are going to support their family. They get out of bed every day and try to do the right thing. To balance work with being a great dad, to teach their kids how to show emotion in a way perhaps they weren’t encouraged to do as children themselves. Men who are trying to encourage and support the women around them. I think it would help if the public conversation created a bit more room for them to breathe and talk about what’s going on for them.

I don’t think they want to be pitied, or that they see themselves as victims. I think they have a deep, understandable, human need to be heard. They are allowed to have grievances and I would like to listen. And I know I am not alone in that.

My experience in politics is that you never lose anything having an open conversation. That’s the kind of discussion that leads to genuinely new mindsets and behaviours, and ultimately, to equality. And in the end, isn’t that what we all want?


My purpose today was to describe how the COVID recession, and the massive economic shifts which preceded it, are affecting the working lives of Australian men. Today’s Australia is richer, but more harsh, to many Australian workers. Especially to those who do not get the chance to stick with education beyond high school. 

I don’t have all the answers here. But we need to think really hard about how we are going to give boys and girls in Australia a different pathway through education if the one we currently provide isn’t working for them. The scandalous cuts to skills training and apprenticeships have to end, and this sector needs to be rebuilt to be fit for purpose for the jobs of the future. We need a more diverse economy, which creates jobs across the skills spectrum, and the new focus on manufacturing will support that – though it is not the beginning and the end of it. And, we need all jobs to be decent jobs. And that means the Parliament stepping up on core industrial issues like labour hire and the systemic underpayment of workers.  

I’ve also spoken a bit about how a broader dialogue about how the world is changing could bring real benefits for both genders.

Broader, more open dialogue is where McKell has made a name for itself. I am looking forward to hearing your views about some of the things I’ve discussed.