By Katie Lahey
Business Council of Australia.
After 16 years of continuous economic growth, Australia is undoubtedly experiencing the best of economic times.
Individual wealth continues to grow, unemployment is at record lows and the stock market continues to boom.
It would be easy to think that our hardest economic challenges are behind us.
But in a real sense, they are just beginning.
With so much prosperity around, it’s easy to overlook the Other Australia – the many Australians for whom prosperity is passing them by.
This Other Australia includes the three million people who remain outside the workforce, many of whom want to work.
It includes the one in seven Australian children who live in households where there’s no wage-earner.
It includes the unacceptably large numbers of Australia’s indigenous population for whom very low rates of workforce participation, poor health and low life expectancy remain endemic.
This is why the time has come for Australia to adopt a new social agenda for our continued economic prosperity.
While much of our future is tied to having a strong economy, it is clear we need to take a broader view to make sure many more people benefit from economic growth than is the case now.
This is not about altruism.
Australia faces an ageing population that will open up huge and costly gaps in the labour force.
Lack of education and job skills among many young Australians mean, if left unaddressed, the country won’t perform as well as it should in a knowledge-based global economy.
For its part, the Business Council of Australia, which represents companies contributing a third of all Australia’s economic activity and employing collectively almost one million people, will increasingly focus on the need for Australia to improve its social prosperity.
Education and participation in employment are the gateways to economic opportunity.
While our education system has many world-class aspects, there remain significant areas of underperformance, which means many Australians miss out on opportunity.
The BCA has outlined a five-point plan to overhaul school education so that every young Australian has access to a world-leading education system.
It includes a greater focus on individual, lifelong learning, strengthening the teaching profession and increasing public investment in education.
It also includes overhauling the centralised management systems that have been running our schools for more than 40 years.
The second area which needs a fundamental rethink are our workforce participation and employment policies.
The current focus has been overall outcomes such as reducing the unemployment rate.
But focusing on unemployment rates, rather than employment and participation rates, sets limits on policy thinking, options and action.
Australia’s participation rate, currently at 65 per cent, is not bad by world standards but we lag the world with low participation by certain groups, such as women of child-bearing age, older Australians and indigenous people.
If we could get a million more people into the workforce, our participation rate would be the world’s best.
At a time when employers are desperate for workers but yet so many Australians remain outside the workforce, we need to focus on dismantling the barriers around tax, child care, transport and skills that will stop more people from entering or staying in the workforce.
The solutions are not difficult, provided we tailor them to individual needs, rather than broad outcomes.
Many businesses are already trying to break down these barriers with their own programs.
But we need to build on that work by making sure governments support these practices with appropriate policies and that best-practice successes are communicated widely to business and the community.
The BCA believes we need to pay particular attention to lifting workforce participation among women and mature-age workers where our rates are well below the average of other developed countries.
If we cannot find ways to better engage those disenfranchised members of our communities and increase Australia’s social prosperity during a period of unprecedented economic prosperity, when will we?