The HILDA Survey is a nationally representative study of Australian households.
For the study, the authors have been interviewing the same 17,000 people every year since 2001, so as to up a picture of how people’s lives change over time. The latest report says that fewer than half of all Australian adults are going to own a home by next year. We catch up with the author, Professor Roger Wilkins to get a good insight into its findings.
Kevin: Last week in the show, I mentioned to you about the HILDA report and how fewer than half of Australian adults will own a home by next year, as skyrocketing property prices lock younger generations out of the Australian Dream. That’s in the HILDA report, which is from the Melbourne Institute – Household, Income, and Labor Dynamics in Australia, abbreviated to HILDA. The author of that report is Professor Roger Wilkins, who joins me.
Professor, thank you for your time.
Roger: You’re welcome.
Kevin: Firstly, could you tell us, for those who are unfamiliar with the HILDA report, a little bit about what it is, what it looks at, and who is surveyed?
Roger: Sure. The HILDA Survey is a nationally representative study of Australian households. It started in 2001. I guess the key distinguishing feature of the study is that it’s longitudinal, which means that we’ve been interviewing the same people every year since 2001, so it really builds up a picture of how people’s lives change over time and really gives you the life course.
The other key feature of the study is that it’s very broad ranging. It gets a lot of information on all aspects, really, of life in Australia. It has about 17,000 people in the study, from right across Australia, so it provides a really unique source of information about just what is going on in Australia.
Kevin: As I said in the introduction, the report says that fewer than half of all Australian adults are going to own a home by next year. Has that been worsening since the study started?
Roger: Yes. In some respects, that was quite a surprising finding. Typically, you see statistics around 63% to 65% of households being owner-occupied, but what we’re able to do with the HILDA data, because we actually identify who are the legal owners of the homes, we can actually identify just what proportion of adults actually own the home they live in.
We get this lower number in 2014 of just under 52% of people owning their home, and as you mentioned, on that trajectory, we would be below 50% by next year. At the beginning of the century – 2002, to be precise – we were up around 57%, so it’s quite a marked decline over a 12-year period.
Kevin: Have you been able to determine the reasons behind that?
Roger: I think the main driver is the house price growth that we’ve seen over the last 15 or so years. To give you an example, since 2001, house prices have increased in real terms – that’s ahead of inflation – by over 90%. That’s well in excess of what incomes have grown by. So it would have to be the leading candidate for explaining that decline in access to the housing market.
Kevin: Professor, do you think it’s a reflection of maybe people’s attitudes changing to how they want to live? In other words, maybe purchasing a home isn’t as important now as it used to be a couple of generations ago?
Roger: That may be a part of it, but I think it’s a very small part. A major reason for that is that renting in the Australian rental market is quite a poor substitute for homeownership. You have less security of tenure. You don’t have the ability to improve your home. It can be hard even getting permission to put a hook in the wall.
I think in that context, most people still regard renting as an inferior form of housing. Of course, many people have been renters all their lives. But I think this increase in the proportion of people who face that prospect of not being able to get into the housing market, I don’t think it’s predominantly reflecting a change in attitudes.
Kevin: That’s a very good point you make. Overseas, it’s quite common for people to go through their entire life and just be happy to rent. I’ve never heard anyone express how poor it was in Australia to be a renter – poor conditions. Do you think that could foreshadow a number of changes in that area to make it better for tenants?
Roger: It’s certainly possible. You could imagine that as the proportion of the population that is renting grows, that would create more political momentum, if you like, for policy changes that create a greater security of tenure and the like. I could certainly conceive of that happening.
Kevin: Of course, property ownership is all about basic wealth, isn’t it? Were you able to identify any groups of people that were substantially wealthier or poorer than average?
Roger: A longstanding feature of the wealth distribution is that older people tend to be wealthier than younger people, and that just reflects the fact that wealth tends to accumulate as you age.
Traditionally, for example, you bought a house with a big mortgage at the start, and you gradually paid off the mortgage so that over time, you own more and more of the home. So your household wealth was growing.
That’s a feature that we see in the HILDA data, from the beginning until the most recent year we have data for. But what we have seen is that relationship between age and wealth has become steeper, if you like. The gap in wealth between the elderly and the young has widened a lot.
For example, among those aged 65 and over, wealth grew by around 60% in real terms between 2002 and 2014, whereas it basically didn’t increase at all for those aged 25 to 34. So the gap has really widened there.
Kevin: There’s a lot of talk at present about younger people being forced out of the property market by those you’re referring to, who’ve built wealth through property. Negative gearing has driven that, I guess, in a way.
Do you see as the younger generation comes through, their attitude will follow through as they grow in terms of number of people who will be voting, that the government will be forced at some stage to dramatically change negative gearing?
Roger: I think we’ve witnessed, even in recent years, a lot stronger calls for changes to negative gearing. Whether they actually translate into a policy change, I don’t know. Certainly, one response to this issue is to try to do things to dampen investor demand for housing, which is clearly acting to price first-home buyers out of the market.
You could imagine steps like removing the capacity for people to negatively gear and, perhaps more importantly, tackling the 50% capital gains discount. We’ll be more likely to see those policies perhaps introduced. In fact, at the last election, we had the Labor opposition proposing to do just that, to make those sorts of changes.
Kevin: There were some pretty stark realities in there, too, in terms of welfare, weren’t there? The number of people who are finding it difficult to exist now: I think the report said something like nearly 70% of all Australian households received some form of welfare benefit between 2001 and 2014. Is that growing?
Roger: No. That’s the interesting feature of the economic slowdown that we’ve experienced. Since around 2009, household incomes have not been growing on average. We might have expected in that climate of an economic slowdown, for welfare receipt to actually have been going up. But it hasn’t gone up much at all, and that was after coming down quite a lot in the years up to 2009. That’s been quite a remarkable finding from the study.
The figure you quote there of 70% is also, I think, quite a startling finding. It shows, I think, the important safety net feature of the welfare system – that at any one point in time, fewer than 18% of people are receiving welfare. This is working-age people, by the way, so I’m excluding retirees. But over a 14-year period, nearly 70% of people at some stage had someone in their household receiving welfare. For most people, it’s a temporary support, which I think speaks well of the system, actually, as a whole.
Kevin: Professor, we’re out of time, but I’d love to be able to talk to you for a lot longer. Thank you for spending some time with us, and thank you very much for your insights into that report. Thanks for your time.
Roger: Thank you. Thank you.