Younger Australians are experiencing higher psychological distress and more loneliness compared to older age groups, according to the latest HILDA data.
While distress and loneliness were more common during the pandemic, researchers are concerned about the long-term trends.
The data also shows teenagers are also more likely to use vapes or e-cigarettes than the rest of the population.
The 18th edition of the annual Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) report examines data gathered between 2001 and 2021, by tracking over 17,000 people in over 9,000 households.
It provides valuable data about Australia’s economic wellbeing, family and social life, and physical and mental health. This edition also includes insights into vaping and e-cigarette use for the first time and the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The distinguishing feature of HILDA is the same households and individuals are interviewed every year, allowing us to see how their lives are changing over time,” said lead author Professor Roger Wilkins. “The data can tell us about the antecedents and consequences of life outcomes, such as poverty, unemployment, marital breakdown, and poor health because we can see the paths that individuals’ lives took prior to those outcomes and the paths they take subsequently.
Loneliness highest amongst young people
Between 2001 and 2009, the greatest proportion of lonely people was among those aged 65 and older. However, by 2021, this group contained the lowest proportion of lonely individuals of all age groups with the 15-24 age group now the highest . All other age groups had a lower proportion of lonely people in 2021 than in 2001.
“There is a clear trend of younger people becoming lonelier and feeling more isolated as time goes on,’’ said co-author Dr Ferdi Botha. “If there aren’t actions taken or policies implemented to intervene, we may see loneliness and psychological distress increasing in the younger generations and this may lead to lower mental and physical wellbeing and other wider societal issues.
“Loneliness increased in the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, but for young people, there is a longer-term trend increase apparent. It may be that this is partly connected to growth in smart phones and social media use,” he said.
Psychological distress rising
Psychological distress levels decline with age, with the youngest age groups (15-24) reporting the highest average distress scores in 2021. Almost half (42.3 per cent) of people aged 15-24 were psychologically distressed in 2021, up from 18.4 per cent in 2011.
Between 2007 and 2021, the percentage of women who were psychologically distressed was higher than men. For men, the prevalence of psychological distress increased by roughly 51 per cent over this period, whereas among women the prevalence of distress increased by about 63 per cent.
HILDA looks at vaping for the first time
The 2021 data shows 14.1 per cent of individuals aged 15 and above had tried electronic cigarettes or vaping devices.
Men were slightly more likely to use these products than women. Individuals who smoked tobacco had a 19.3 percentage-point higher probability of vaping compared to people who didn’t smoke.
“Age is a significant factor in e-cigarette and vaping device usage with individuals between the ages of 15 and 19 predicted to have a 13.8 percentage-point higher probability of using these products than those aged 30 to 39,” said Professor Wilkins. “This means teenagers are far more likely to vape or use e-cigarettes than their parents or teachers.”
Marriage on the decline but partnered couples do better financially
There has been a decline in the proportion of married people, which is mirrored by growth in de facto relationships between 2001 and 2021. For men, the proportion of those married declined from 56.3 per cent in 2001 to 50.3 per cent, while the proportion in a de facto relationship rose from 9 per cent to 14.7 per cent.
For women, the proportion of those married declined from 54.5 per cent to 48.2 per cent, while those in a de facto relationship rose from 8.9 per cent to 14.3 per cent.
Going from partnered to single had considerably more adverse effects for women than men, reducing household income by at least 16.7 per cent on average. The change from a partnered mother household to a single mother household was associated with an approximate 20 per cent decline in equivalised household income, while the reverse was associated with a 22.4 per cent to 28.5 percent increase.
“Compared to 2001, household incomes are higher, in part because the average tax rate is slightly lower,’’ says Professor Wilkins. “Women are taxed at a lower rate than men on average, but that is due to lower levels of income earned. Inequality has declined slightly with the arrival of COVID. It was at its lowest during 2020 and increased slightly in 2021 but was still lower than before the pandemic.”
Females more likely to work when unwell
In the four weeks preceding the survey, 16.8 per cent of employed men and 19.8 per cent of employed women reported working when physically unwell, while 11.1 per cent of employed men and 19.1 per cent of employed women reported working when mentally unwell. In total, 22.5 per cent of employed men and 29.6 per cent of employed women reported working when physically and/or mentally unwell.
People with a moderate or severe disability, or in poor mental health, were much more likely to work when unwell.
About the HILDA Survey
HILDA is funded by the Australian Government Department of Social Services and managed by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne.
For detailed analysis and many more findings, download the full report here.
For Pursuit stories unpacking the key findings of the report, click here.
This report was authored by:
- Professor Roger Wilkins, Deputy Director of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research and Co-Director of the HILDA Survey Project
- Dr Esperanza Vera-Toscano, Senior Research Fellow, Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research
- Dr Ferdi Botha, Senior Research Fellow, Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research