Cohesion Index

Bringing depth and context to the picture of social cohesion in Australia in order to drive informed debate and decision-making.

Department of Home Affairs logoScanlon Foundation Research Institute Logo
Department of Home Affairs logoScanlon Foundation Research Institute Logo

Released 30 November 2021


The Australian Cohesion Index is published every two years, combining attitudinal data gathered through the Mapping Social Cohesion Survey with objective indicators from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and other sources. It brings more depth and context to the picture of social cohesion in Australia to drive informed debate and decisions.

Indicators were tracked over the decade 2008-2018. The selection of indicators included in the objective component of the Australian Cohesion Index was based upon a broad definition of social progress, including the concept of ‘wellbeing’. Informed by a review of international indexes, the Australian index developed for this project comprises five objective domains: the first two relate to material conditions, income and employment, together with three domains covering health, education and community participation.

In keeping with the findings of the Scanlon Foundation surveys, the objective indicators point to a society characterised by a large measure of stability.

The objective index score for 2018 is 97 when benchmarked against 2008 (which is scored at 100). Aggregated with the Scanlon-Monash Index, which in 2018 was at 90 index points, the Australian Cohesion Index score for 2018 is 94, pointing to a small decline over the decade of six index points from the 2007-08 benchmark.

Material Conditions – including income, assets and employment

Australian economic growth over the last two decades has outpaced most leading economies, with Australia recording 29 years of recession-free expansion until the June quarter of 2020. From 2000 to the onset of the global financial crisis (GFC) in mid-2007, the nation averaged annual real GDP growth of over 3%, while in per capita terms growth was around 2%.


Personal income has grown over the decade since 2008. It was, however, a relatively slow rate of growth—around 2% per annum—compared to 3 to 4% in earlier decades. (Lowe 2018)

Employment: Employed persons, full-time and part-time
Total income42,98744,77845,82846,85447,69248,36049,805


Household net worth has grown.

Mean household net worth was $852,000 in 2009-10 and $1,022,000 in 2017-18, an increase of 20%. However, in the context of the skewing of income distribution, discussed below, median household net worth finds lower growth: an increase from $504,000 to $559,000 or 11% (ABS, Household Income and Wealth, released 12/07/2019).

Household net worth 2003-04 to 2017-18


A widely used indicator of income inequality is the Gini coefficient, a summary indicator with values between 0 and 1. A value of 0 indicates perfect equality, whereas 1 represents perfect inequality.

In the decade to 2017-18, the level of inequality has remained largely stable, within the range 0.336 and 0.328. In 2018, Australia’s Gini coefficient ranked 13th highest out of 33 OECD member states.

At the same time, the Gini coefficient for household net wealth increased by 3.2%. From 2003-04 to 2017-18, middle and high wealth households experienced a real increase in net worth.The average net worth of middle wealth households increased from $415,800 to $564,500 (adjusted for inflation); high wealth households increased from $1.9 million to $3.2 million. Low wealth households, with an average net worth close to $35,000, did not experience an increase in net worth. (ABS, Household Income and Wealth, 12 July 2019)

Gini coefficient, Australia
2007–082015–162017–18Change 2007-08 to 2017-18%
Gini coefficient for equivalised disposable household income0.3360.3230.328-0.008-2.4
Gini coefficient for household net wealth0.602 (2009-10)0.6050.621+0.019+3.2

Source: ABS: Household Income and Wealth, Australia, released 12/07/2019. Equivalised Disposable Household income estimates are adjusted to standardise for variations in household size and composition, taking into account economies of scale that arise from the sharing of dwellings. Household net worth in 2017-18 dollars, adjusted using the Consumer Price Index.


There was a substantial increase of close to two million workers employed between 2008 and 2018 (from 10.7 million to 12.6 million).

Employment: Employed persons, full-time and part-time
2010 June2015 June2017 June2018 June

Source: Reserve Bank of Australia, Labour force (H5)

In terms of unemployment, this has overall trended downwards. Long-term unemployment has remained relatively stable, while youth unemployment – defined as 15-25-year-olds – remains a large share of the unemployed.

Share of the labour force unemployed for one year or more, percentage

Source: OECD, How’s Life? 2020, p.92

Unemployment rate, youth, aged 15-24, seasonally adjusted, percentage
 2008 June2011 June2014 June2018 June

Source: ABS, Labour Force, Australia, August 2018


There has been significant change in the housing market. There has been a decline in home ownership, increase in renting, and an increase in those paying more than 30% of their income on rent, which is defined as rental stress.

Housing tenure, 1997-98 to 2017-18, percentage
 Owner without a mortgageOwner with a mortgageRenter state or territory housing authorityRenter private landlord

Source: Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Housing Occupancy and Costs, 2017-18 financial year

Housing costs as a proportion of household income, 1994–95, 2005–06 and 2017–18, percentage
Percentage of income spent on housing costs1994-52005-62017-8
50% or more4.65.15.5
25% or less80.376.575.3

Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Housing Affordability, 30 June 2021

Proportion of low income households in rental stress, by household location, 2007-08 to 2017-18, percentage
Year  Capital cities  Rest of state  All households  

Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australia’s welfare, Housing affordability data tables, Figure 2


The health of a nation - including physical and mental health, as well as the prevalence of risk factors - are vital to our understanding of social cohesion.

Life expectancy at birth

One of the most widely used indicators of population health is life expectancy at birth, which is viewed as a summary indicator of the health of a population. Life expectancy in Australia continues to be ranked among the highest in the world. Between 2017 and 2019, Australia had the eighth highest female and the fifth highest male life expectancy in the world.

Life expectancy at birth, 1992 to 2017-19

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Life tables 2017-2019

Self-assessed health

Self-assessed health is a commonly used measure of health status. The proportion of Australians who characterise their health as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ has remained relatively unchanged throughout the period.

Self-assessed health status, National Health Survey and General Social Survey. In response to the question, ‘In general, would you say that your health is ...’, percentage
National Health SurveyGeneral Social Survey
Excellent/ very goodGoodSub-total Excellent, Very good, GoodFair/ poorExcellent/ very goodGoodFair/ poor

Source: ABS, National Health Survey, General Social Survey. For the NHS the published data is for respondents aged 15/+, with the exception of 2011-12 where it is 18/+; for the GSS, it is 18/+.

Mental health

A comparison of NHS findings for 2014-15 and 2017-18 finds that the proportion with mental or behavioural conditions has increased. In 2017-18, 20.1% or 4.8 million Australians had a mental or behavioural condition, an increase from 17.5% or 4 million in 2014-15. Overall, mental health problems were more common amongst females than males (22.3% compared to 17.9%).

Proportion of persons with a mental or behavioural condition, by age and sex, 2017-18

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Mental health 2017–18 financial year

Psychological distress

The proportion of people aged 18 or older indicating high or very high levels of psychological distress was 12% percent in 2007-08, 13% in 2017-18, representing 2.4 million people. Social and economic conditions can have a significant impact on psychological mood.

Persons aged 18 and over – high or very high psychological distress by disadvantage, 2017-18

a. A lower index of disadvantage quintile (e.g. the first quintile) indicates relatively greater disadvantage and a lack of advantage in general. A higher index of disadvantage (e.g. the fifth quintile) indicates a relative lack of disadvantage and greater advantage in general. See Index of Relative Socio-Economic Disadvantage in the Glossary.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Mental health 2017-18 financial year.

Health risk factors

A number of risk factors have fallen, like smoking levels and alcohol consumption. Others, like unhealthy weight, have increased.

Health risk factors, persons aged 18 or over, selected indicators, percentage
Current daily smokerSedentary/ Low exercise levelAlcohol consumption – exceed NHMRC lifetime risk guidelinesOverweight/ obeseInadequate fruit or vegetable consumption
2014-1514.566.217.463.492.9 (Veg.)
2017-1813.8--- (Fruit)

Source: ABS, National Health Survey, First results, 2017-18, Data downloads, Table 1, 2001-2017-18

Proportion of current daily smokers by areas of relative socio-economic disadvantage, 2017-18

a. A lower index of disadvantage quintile (e.g. the first quintile) indicates relatively greater disadvantage and a lack of advantage in general. A higher index of disadvantage (e.g. the fifth quintile) indicates a relative lack of disadvantage and greater advantage in general. See Index of Relative Socio-Economic Disadvantage in the Glossary.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Smoking 2017-18 financial year


The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) notes that “participation and engagement in education from an early age are essential for a person’s development.”

Year 9 standards – NAPLAN and PISA

There are two measures of school level educational performance of students: the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) and the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The 2018 NAPLAN results only show minor changes since the first year of testing in 2008. The majority of Year 9 students obtained results at or above the minimum standard for reading (93.4%), compared to 92.9% in 2008. 95.5% of students reached the numeracy standard (compared to 93.6% in 2008) and 79.5% reached the writing standard (compared to 84.8% in 2011, the first year the testing was introduced).

National Assessment Program 2008-2018, Average achievement (mean score) of students, Year 9, Australia
2008 (base year)201220162018
Writing565.9 (2011, base year)553.7549.1542.4

Source: National Assessment Program, Literacy and Numeracy, National Report for 2019, p. 258, p. 279; data for 2010 and 2012 is from the 2012 report; persuasive writing is from annual reports, p. 205

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial survey of achievement in core school subjects of science, reading and mathematics and measures understanding and problem solving. The survey has been conducted since 2000. The latest results are for 2018.

It focuses on 15-year-olds, the age at which compulsory schooling comes to an end in a number of countries. It aims to assess, “the extent to which 15-year-old students near the end of their compulsory education have acquired the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies.” (quoted Carol Ey 2019)

While Australian students still perform above the OECD average, the difference between the Australian and OECD averages have narrowed.

Mean performance on PISA, Australia and OECD, 2000 to 2018
OECD av.500494492493496493487
OECD av.500500498496494490489
OECD av.500496500501501493489

Source: OECD data, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, School student engagement and performance, release 16 Sept. 2021

Non-school qualifications

In 2018, the SEW survey found that 65.1% of Australians aged 25 to 64 years had a non-school qualification at Certificate III level or above. This had increased by almost 15 percentage points from 2008, mainly due to a higher proportion of people obtaining a bachelor or higher degree.

Proportion of persons with a non-school qualification, Certificate III level or above aged 25-64

Source: Education and Work, Australia, May 2020

Degree level qualifications

In 2008, 24.4% of Australians aged between 25 to 64 years had a tertiary qualification at a bachelor degree level or higher. In 2018 this was significantly higher at 31.4%, an increase of seven percentage points.

Highest non-school qualification, Bachelor degree or above, aged 25-64

Source: ABS, Education and Work, May 2018 (Released 13 Nov. 2019)

Not in education, employment or training

The acronym NEET refers to those not engaged in education, employment or training, people who are considered disengaged from work and education.

NEET is different from the unemployment rate as it captures those who are inactive as well as those who are unemployed.

Proportion of young people (aged 15-24) not in any employment or study, by sex, percentage

Source: ABS, Education and Work, released 11/11/2020

Participation and Connectedness

Community participation is considered using three indicators: involvement in voluntary work through an organisation; involvement in social, community, civic or political groups; and participation in political life through voting.

Voluntary work / Volunteering

The GSS found that in 2006, close to one third (34.1%) of the Australian population aged 15 years and over participated in unpaid voluntary work through an organisation in the 12 months prior to the survey. This rate of volunteering has declined over the last decade: from 36.2% in 2010 to 30.9% in 2014 to 28.8% in 2019.

Voluntary work through an organisation in the last 12 months
Has undertaken unpaid voluntary
work through an organisation in
last 12 months

Source: General Social Survey, Summary Results, 2020, Released 29 June 2021

Participation in unpaid voluntary work through an organisation, by age

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, General Social Survey: Summary Results, Australia 2019

Charitable giving

Charitable giving indicates commitment to and involvement in the community; however, it is difficult to measure. This is because ‘philanthropy and giving occurs in many ways, and there are numerous mechanisms through which money can be given’. (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2021b)

Australian charitable giving is one of the highest in the world. The Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) ranks Australia eighth (out of 140 countries) in the 10-year period between 2009 and 2018 on the World Giving Index. In this period, three out of five Australians made a financial donation to a charity. (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2021b)


The social networks of individuals and the development of trust and sharing that comes from personal interaction is thought to be a key to the effective functioning of democracy, according to American social researcher Robert Putnam.

In 2019, half of all Australians indicated they were involved in social groups; one quarter in community support groups, and less than one in ten (9.4%) in civic and political groups. There is consistent indication of decline in civic participation.

Involvement in social groups decreased from 63% to 51% between 2010 and 2014 and was at 50% in 2019.

Community involvement, 2006-2019
Community involvement2006201020142019
Has been involved in groups in the last 12 months
Social groups62.762.550.750.0
Community support groups33.334.932.825.0
Civic and political groups18.618.713.89.4

Source: General Social Survey, Summary Results, 2020, Released 29 June 2021

Group involvement


Voting is an important indication of engagement with the political process. An OECD report on its member states notes that in the 2016 federal election in Australia, 91% of registered voters participated. This was one of the highest rates of participation in the OECD where the average is 69%, although it reflects the compulsory voting system.

An additional trend that is of potential relevance to assessing the workings of Australian democracy is the decrease in the vote obtained by major political parties, potentially indicating disillusionment with the parties that form government.

Major party first preference votes, House of Representatives
PeriodNumber of elections Average major party voteMinor party and independent

Source: Gerard Newman (1999); Green (2019)


The Australian Cohesion Index provides a valuable insight into social cohesion across five key objective domains. Tracked every two years, the Index will provide an ongoing reference to understand social cohesion in Australia, and aid policymaking and decisions about our future.

The full Australian Cohesion Index is included in the 2021 Mapping Social Cohesion report.

Visit the Mapping Social Cohesion 2021 microsite