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Age is just a number — but an important one - featured image
By Simone Alexander

Age is just a number — but an important one

They say age is just a number, but in the demographic world it's more than that.

Large Group Of Stylized People.The age structure explains a lot about how populations grow and change.

Furthermore, the story around many social indicators are enhanced when age is considered.

This blog will look at some of the social data released via the Census, and how combining these with age can help us understand how our communities are changing.

Education level

In the last two decades the number of Australians obtaining post school qualifications has increased enormously.

The demands of the labour market in the 21st century dictate that people have more than a school education to secure skilled employment.

In 1991, just 7.4% of the Australian population possessed a university qualification, but in 2016 this had increased to 22%.

Impressive that this increase is, the actual number of people with a university level qualification quadrupled over the same time period.

Conversely, the number of people without any post school qualification ie Year 12 or below, had decreased from 61.3% to 39.9% between 1991 and 2016.

The chart below shows the proportion of the population with a university qualification by age.


It's clear that there is a distinct relationship with age.

Aside from 15-24 year olds - many of whom are still studying - younger people are far more likely to possess a post school qualification.

35% of 25-34 year olds possess university qualifications, and the proportion declines with age.

Less than 10% of people aged 75 years and over have a university qualification.

EducationThis is important because not only does it indicate the importance of post school qualifications in the 21st century, but many social variables are often analysed against education level.

A good example is fertility rates - several studies have found that women with higher levels of education have lower levels of fertility.

But if education levels amongst younger women are increasing to the point that they're becoming ubiquitous, will education levels explain differences in fertility in the future?


The ABS has collected data on the need for assistance with core activities (eg communication, mobility) in each Census since 2006.

This variable is used as a proxy for the level of disability in the population.  Around 5% of the population reported that they had a disability in the 2016 Census.

This proportion has been increasing slightly since the 2006 Census.

However, when the data is examined by age a positive relationship is found - as age increases, so too does the likelihood of a disability.

This is shown in the chart below.


As mentioned above, around 5% of the population have a disability but the incidence is much higher from around the age of 65.

At the upper end of the age spectrum the proportion increases dramatically.  At 75-84 years about 20% of the population reported a disability, and this increases to almost 47% for persons aged 85 years and older.

This is a clear example of the importance of understanding patterns of ageing in the community in order to plan for disability services.


The volunteering question in the Census is quite basic - it merely requires a yes or no answer to the question of whether a person spent any time doing voluntary work for an organisation or group in the previous twelve months.Volunteering

Unfortunately there is no indication as to the time spent volunteering or for what type of organisation, so it's beneficial to analyse these variable with other demographic indicators.

The ABS have run a more detailed volunteering survey in the past (ABS Cat. no. 4441.0) but the latest data is from 2010.

In 2016, 19% of the population reported that they had volunteered in the twelve months prior to the Census.

Volunteering rates not only differ by age, but also by sex, as shown in the chart below.


Overall, females have higher volunteering rates (20.9%) than men (17.1%).

This applies to most age groups, though at 75-84 years the rate is similar and after the age of 85 men are slightly more likely to volunteer than women.

The higher rates of volunteering amongst women is likely due to employment status — women are more likely to work part-time or not at all, hence having more time to devote to volunteering activities.

Woman In Volunteer Group 350There is no clear relationship between age and volunteering - there are peaks and troughs at different parts of the age spectrum.

The highest rates are for 35-54 year olds, and from the age of 75 volunteering rates drop off quickly, probably as health levels decline.

Volunteering rates are relatively high for 15-19 year olds, but much lower for 20-34 year olds.


Many social variables benefit from analysis in conjunction with demographic variables such as age.

The data presented here shows that younger people are more likely to have university qualifications than older people, and this is in line with contemporary labour market trends that demand higher skill levels.

The likelihood of disability increases with age, particularly after the age of 75.

Volunteering rates not only differ by age, but also by sex.

About Simone Alexander Simone Alexander is a demographic consultant with more than 20 years of experience working in both the public and private sectors. She uses her expertise to blog about demographic trends, housing and planning issues in Australia’s cities and regions.
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