Political, social memberships decline and people are pressed for time: ABS data

Nearly 40 per cent of people say they feel rushed, according to new data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Nearly 40 per cent of people say they feel rushed, according to new data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

The number of Australians who are members of political and social groups has seen a significant decline in the past decade, while nearly 40 per cent of Australians say they are always or often rushed for time, according to new data.

The results from the Australian Bureau of Statistics general social survey, released this week, found national participation in civil and political groups - which include political parties and unions - fell from 18.7 per cent in 2010 to 9.4 per cent in 2019.

Participation in social groups - which include team sports, hobby groups and clubs - dropped from 62.5 per cent to 50 per cent in the same period.

People aged between 40 and 54 were the most likely to say they felt rushed for time, with women more likely to say they were often or always feeling rushed.

More than two thirds of Australia had face-to-face contact with friends or family who lived outside their household each week, the survey found. But women were more likely to have contact than men.

Dr Andrew Leigh, a former academic who is the federal Labor member for Fenner, said there had been consistent trends since the 1980s which pointed to a decline in Australian community life: church attendance and union membership had fallen by two thirds and the number of friends people reported having had halved.

"Right across the board Australians are becoming more disconnected and the ABS data only serves to reinforce that," Dr Leigh said.

Dr Leigh, whose new book, Reconnected, co-authored with adviser Nick Terrell, was published this week, said he was concerned by the growing disengagement with politics.

As the membership of political parties declines, they risk becoming less representative of the community.

Dr Leigh said there had been marked declines in political party membership and the number of people who were voting at all, which suggested problems at both ends of the engagement spectrum.

"One of the things that we think is quite promising is deliberative democracy forums, which look to engage a broad share of the population in serious conversations about how to tackle tough issues," he said.

Dr Leigh said the importance of community life grew in Australia in the early part of the 20th century, when economic equality spread.

"We know that World War II had quite an ongoing effect on community connectedness but we know that September 11 in the United States had only a temporary impact," he said.

"So you can't rely on crises to automatically build community. You need to get the structures in place and I think there's some social entrepreneurs doing just that."

Dr Leigh said community life could be reinvigorated, and it was not about turning back the clock on technology, though it was technology in the first place which had contributed to social separation.

"We've got a rise in car commuting and a fall in the number of people in the average car. So we're more likely to be getting to work on our own in a car than in shared public transport. We've also seen a rise since the 1960s in television watching. A significant rise recently in gaming and smartphone and tablet use, and they're trends which seem to be associated with declining civic engagement," he said.

Dr Leigh pointed to social media groups which were being used to connect community members in times of need and share collective resources as one way technology could be used to repair community connections.

He said the rise in community solidarity and mutual aid groups after the summer bushfires and coronavirus pandemic had shown there was still capacity for strong community focused work.

"The challenge is in making that a lasting change," Dr Leigh said.

This story New data shows Australians are disconnected, pressed for time first appeared on The Canberra Times.