At the Stephen Smith versus Julie Bishop education debate at the Melbourne Institute on Thursday, they discussed their mutual plans for a national curriculum. While I think this a bad idea, the aspect that appeals to many people is helping people who move interstate. Smith claimed that we are an increasingly mobile society. But is this true?
Back in 2004, I wrote a post questioning this conventional wisdom. I reported then:
The first time the census asked about any residential move in the last 5 years, in 1971, 60.6% had not moved. The last time they asked, in 2001, it was 57.6%.
Most of these moves are to places nearby. Only 4.8% of the population moved interstate between 1996 and 2001, compared to 4.4% between 1966 and 1971. The 4.8% is the lowest rate since the 1971 to 1976 period; it peaked at 5.5% between 1986 and 1991
Since then, of course, we’ve had another census. Though the ABS has not yet put out a publication on population mobility, the census website allows you to create tables yourself on many topics, including internal migration (I wish they would do this for other datasets).
In 2006, 61.5% of the population was living in the same place as they had been in 2001. That’s the highest proportion ever recorded. Interstate mobility has been trending down since 1991, and has hit its lowest ever figure of 4.5% over the five years beween 2001 and 2006.
One thing that these census statistics don’t record is Australians moving overseas, a number that definitely is trending up. My own friends move overseas on a disconcertingly frequent basis (is it me?). It’s irrelevant to the national curriculum debate, but this would help explain mobility perceptions. For example, if I add the permanent departures in the immigration statistics to the interstate movers in the census statistics, I get an interstate/overseas mobility rate of 5.36%. But that’s still lower than interstate movers alone between 1986 and 1991.
Why is the common assumption of increased mobility inaccurate? It is at least partly because our brains aren’t very good at making comparisons over time, particularly when it involves the very complex task of measuring other people’s behaviour. That’s hard enough to assess now, let alone recall what it was like in the past. Because high mobility is noticeable at any given time, and we tend to forget about the people who moved in the past, our brain assumes that there is an upwards ‘trend’.
But why is within-Australia mobility actually going down? I haven’t extracted the figures by age (you have to download each state separately), but mobility peaks when people are in their twenties and after that decreases with age. So as the population ages, all other things being equal mobility goes down. Whether that explains all of the decline I don’t know, but it will almost certainly explain some of it.