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Towards full employment



Unemployment and underemployment in Australia have been exacerbated by the current pandemic. There are groups who have been disproportionately affected, including women and people who don’t identify as men along with youth as well as people experiencing multiple barriers based on race, class, gender and ability. According to a Per Capita report, even two years ago, 40 per cent of people aged between 25 and 34 were in part-time, casual or fixed-term work and 290,000 people had dropped out of the labour market entirely.

Group of people helping each other across borders. Illustration Chris Johnston

What then, does the case for full employment look like? When I talk about full employment it is not the same as one hundred percent; that is simply unrealistic. It is about everyone having access to a meaningful job and pathways to a job that includes people with extra barriers to employment such as those in rural areas, people with a disability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This is not just an economic question, but too of having access to a decent wage that allows all people to live a decent life.

In a recent paper looking at youth and employment, Per Capita argues for a youth guarantee under which every young person under 25 gets a place in employment, education or training. For this to be effective, the paper highlights four areas that would be a significant shift in public policy: publicly funded post-secondary education, study and training allowances that provide a living wage, increased demand for entry-level positions and employment services that direct young workers towards skills shortages.

Sometimes it too helps to look back in order to look forward. The post-World War II 1945 White Paper on Full Employment provides some guidance. It states: ‘…governments should accept the responsibility for stimulating spending on goods and services to the extent necessary to sustain full employment.’ Associate Professor David Lee recently highlighted too how full employment became a bipartisan policy from post-war through to the 1970s. He puts forward the idea of a post-COVID-19 agency modelled on the successful Department of Post-War Reconstruction that would focus on tax reform, welfare system reform, job creation strategy and revival of key industries such as tourism. I would add to this a focus on groups facing the greatest barriers to employment with a consultation process to best understand and meet their needs. 

In considering which types of jobs should be created, Richard Denniss stated recently:  ‘When we spend a million dollars on something like health and education, we create ten jobs. When we spend a million dollars on something like construction, we create about one and a half jobs… now if we were trying to create jobs then we’d get bang for our buck by spending money in the labour-intensive industries.’ He also highlighted the gendered division of industries and the fact that for every one million dollars of job creation in construction, that would be 0.2 jobs for women while in education it would be ten. Michele O’Neil also gave an example of job creation with multiplier effects, that of building a TAFE, which would include construction jobs, teaching and administrative jobs as well as the potential to offer education to communities facing barriers to employment.  

Richard Merzian also added that ‘Electrifying transport ticks so many boxes. It would create a whole bunch of jobs. It would potentially integrate more opportunities like taking a lot of the mining of rare earths and manufacturing those things we need here and it would reduce emissions in a sector that just continues to climb.’ Further, according to a report from the Australia Institute, the provision of free childcare can be effective for economic stimulus as well as having the capacity to boost long-term participation of women in the workforce. The report states that if Australia were to have the workforce participation rate of Iceland, the Nordic country with the highest participation rate, we’d be looking at in economic terms, and increase of 3 per cent of GDP or 60.4 billion dollars.


'It may in fact feel contrary to talk about a lot of things looking into a future of so many unknowns, yet now is the time to envision a post-COVID-19 society and address systemic barriers to employment now of which there are more than ever.'


It does feel strange to be writing about possibilities for increasing employment here in Victoria, where we have gone back into Stage 3 restrictions. It may in fact feel contrary to talk about a lot of things looking into a future of so many unknowns, yet now is the time to envision a post-COVID-19 society and address systemic barriers to employment now of which there are more than ever.

Full employment may remain a far-off dream, yet prioritising government spending toward industries that create more jobs under a government agency focused on recovery simply makes sense. Aspects that really need to be addressed to get there however are firstly, a broader shift in public understanding around debt; that debt in and of itself is not a bad thing and that public spending will be vital to stimulate the economy and therefore maximizing spending on job creation in sectors of maximum benefit is key. Secondly, that spending is not going to automatically result in high inflation.

To this effect, I have heard a series of economists talk recently of the economy in terms of how it relates to us and benefits us rather than as having a life of its own. From here we can consider where we need it to help us most and put it to work.



Bree Alexander's words have appeared with Enchanting Verses, Westerly Magazine and Australian Multilingual Writing Project. Under pseudonym Lika Posamari, she was shortlisted for the Overland Fair Australia Prize 2018 (NTEU category) and published a poetry chapbook The Eye as it Inhales Onions.

Main image: Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Topic tags: Bree Alexander, employment, economy



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Existing comments

I agree with your comments re poverty- one of the three: homelessness and joblessness, being the other two causes which afflict the world, and are not inherently caused by health, but rather by government inaction. Selfishness and greed are the causes of the latter. In his ALP election policy speech of October 1980 Bill Hayden offered the country alternatives to help redress these problems in practical ways. Nothing has changed in nearly 40 years. There is no unifying plan today which embraces solutions to the three problems. Until someone or some organization presents it, we are where we were in 1980.

John Willis | 09 July 2020  

I hear what you say, Bree but I've long given up on waiting for the govt. (of any colour) to do some thing about un/under employment. I'm putting my shoulder to the "cooperative wheel". Bryan

Bryan Dwyer | 09 July 2020  

The ultimate goal is not full employment, but a better quality of life, free of poverty, where everyone's basic needs are met; where everyone lives and works with dignity. Perhaps it's time to introduce a Universal Basic Income (UBI). Rutger Bregman, in his book "Utopia for Realists" explains the benefits and cost of UBI. His arguments are compelling. The benefits are enormous and the costs are modest. Less homelessness; improved physical and mental health; less crime; more dignified jobs; a more artistic, skilled, and creative society, etc. For me the best thing about UBI is the elimination of traditional welfare bureaucracies and the poverty traps that they foster. UBI may require slightly higher taxes, but would unleashed the true benefits of the free market. With money in their hands, woman, the young, the elderly, and the disabled, they would demand the goods and services that they need. The 'free hand of the market' would then ensure that those needs are satisfied. Problem solved!!

Michael Taouk | 20 July 2020  

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