Skip to Content

The distribution of wealth in Australia

Frank Stilwell & David Primrose

The National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) was commissioned by Catalyst Australia to conduct a study of the distribution of wealth in Australia. The NATSEM data supplements previous sources and gives us an up-to-date picture of who is wealthy in Australia and who is not.

What is particularly interesting about the new data is the disaggregated analysis of wealth distribution, classified according to a number of overlapping social categories: age, income, gender, occupation, industry and household composition. This supplements a previous NATSEM analysis that showed that the richest fifth of Australian households each have, on average, forty times more wealth than the poorest fifth of the population.

Analysis of the new NATSEM data confirms that wealth in Australia remains concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few. The minority sitting at the higher end of the income scale have reaped the benefits of the economic growth in recent decades by disproportionately increasing their personal wealth. This has been at the expense of the majority at the other end of the income scale, whose share of personal wealth has declined relative to those high-income earners. Large wealth disparities also exist between different occupational and industry groupings.

The NATSEM data also highlights the persistence of disparities in the wealth of Australian men and women. Average levels of wealth for men and women remain highly unequal across the categories of age, income, occupation and industry. Even when women and men appear to be relatively equal according to some measurements, there are other gendered dimensions of economic inequality. For example, while the wealth levels of those working in high-status occupations are not dissimilar on average, there are many fewer women within those occupations. Such discrepancies often translate into relative poverty for women during retirement, as well as increased reliance on government support and pensions.

These persistent economic inequalities run counter to the ethos of 'a fair go' often assumed as a fundamental characteristic of Australian society. Comprehending the complex dimensions of this problem is therefore an essential first step in remedying the situation and promoting more effective egalitarian social policies.

Wealth & the life cycle

Wealth is typically accumulated over the life cycle. However, people's capacity to get wealthier over time varies according to their socio-economic position, good fortune (such as receiving inherited wealth), thrift, and a host of other factors. Personal wealth is also commonly run down in old age. These patterns are confirmed by the NATSEM data.

Average household wealth increases with the age of the principal household reference person until 55-64 years of age, after which it declines. This decline is particularly rapid in the case of men, falling from an average wealth of $205 500 at 60-64 years to $138 800 after the age of 65 is reached. A slightly less marked decline occurs in the case of women, falling from around $125 300 for 55-59-year-olds to $89 000 for women over 65. Overall, men aged 25-64 and women in the 25-59 range possess the greatest average wealth, while those under 25 years and retirees own the least wealth.

Not surprisingly, flows of income correlate strongly with stocks of wealth. Households with high incomes can more readily accumulate valuable assets, and those assets then commonly generate more incomes. Meanwhile, households with low incomes are less able to accumulate wealth and tend to be locked into a more disadvantaged position, sometimes into a vicious cycle of poverty.

The NATSEM figures show the relationships between wealth and income for both men and women. Men aged 25-64 years who earn $50 000 or less annually have an average wealth in the range $67 800 to $92 000. Fifty-eight per cent of all men are in this category. By contrast, men who earn $100 000 or more annually have average wealth in the range of $236 800 to $534 400. Only 6.1% of surveyed men aged 25-64 years earn this amount.

The strong link between income and wealth applies also to women. Those annually earning $50 000 or below have an average wealth ranging from $45 500 to $61 700, which is less than men's wealth at the same income level. This applies to 85% of women. Women with an annual personal income of $100 000 or above have average wealth in the range of $242 100 to $492 500. While women in these higher income categories possess only slightly less average wealth than men at the same income level, a very small proportion of women fit into this income category (1.3% of all women).

Overall, these figures suggest that wealth is concentrated among a small proportion of the population with high incomes. There evidently exists an intimate relationship between who owns what and who gets what. This confirms earlier studies of the distribution of wealth in Australia.

Gender & wealth

In addition to the inequalities among men and among women, as outlined above, large disparities in average wealth between the genders are demonstrated by the NATSEM study. For people with annual incomes up to $50 000, particularly large disparities exist between the average wealth of women and men, despite the former being more numerous in all but one of the income groups. Surprisingly, for those earning between $50 000 and $150 000 annually, women have slightly more average wealth than men. However, in the highest income category of over $150 000 per annum, there are virtually no female representatives at all. Overall, the average wealth for all women surveyed is about $70 000 compared with $119 000 for men. In percentage terms, women have only 59% of the average wealth of men.

The wealth peak for men & women

Gender disparity continues over the work-life course. In all age groups there exists a large disparity of wealth between men and women. This disparity accelerates markedly between the ages of 25-64, during which time the average wealth of men swells from $39 500 to $205 500. The corresponding figures for women are from $35 200 to a peak of $125 300 in the 55-59 age bracket, before declining slightly to around $120 500 among 60-64-year-olds. This suggests that men usually accumulate wealth over the course of their working life, while women's accumulation peaks earlier and then declines. The typical peak wealth of women is a little more than half of the peak wealth of men.

Gender gap, wealth inequalities in different jobs

The gap between the average wealth of men and women also varies according to the occupations and industries in which they are engaged. According to occupation, the greatest disparity between the average wealth of men and women is amongst elementary clerical, sales and service workers ($110 400 versus $19 900). Jobs that fall within this category include sales assistants, security guards and laundry workers. The smallest relative wealth gap can be seen in advanced clerical and service workers ($91 600 versus $83 500). Jobs in this occupational category include book-keepers, personal assistants and secretaries.

Turning from occupation to industry, other significant disparities are revealed. The largest gap in personal wealth between men and women is within the finance and insurance sector ($330 600 versus $88 500) where many women work. By contrast, there exists only a small differential in the construction industry ($63 500 versus $62 700) where few women work. In other industries where many women work, there are large wealth gaps: for example, in health and community services ($174 000 versus $68 000) and retail trade ($84 000 versus $34 000).

The correlation between levels of income and gender inequalities in average wealth is also interesting. Women in each of the income categories between $50-150 000 possess greater average wealth than men. However, there are fewer women in each of the higher income and wealth categories. So, although the difference between average levels of wealth is not large for men and women in the higher income groupings, there are far fewer women with those high levels of income and wealth.

Wealth & work

The global reorganisation of production by transnational corporations, coupled with changes in technology and the increasing prevalence of precarious work, has significantly affected both the volume and range of employment opportunities available. This is reflected in the NATSEM survey which shows that the increased dualism in the labour market has been matched by a dualism of personal wealth holders, those with a great deal and those with very little wealth.

Predictably, average personal wealth is highest for managers and administrators ($250 000 for men and $183 300 for women) and for professionals ($173 800 and $99 700). More surprisingly, male elementary clerical, sales and service workers also have quite high personal wealth - $110 400 on average. Women in this category on average own only $19 900 though.

Also surprising is that male elementary clerical, sales and service workers have more wealth than males in the intermediate and advanced categories of these occupations. The lowest average personal wealth is held by the intermediate production and transport workers ($55 400) and labourers ($39 700). The corresponding low wealth occupations for women are labourers ($27 300) and elementary clerical, sales and service workers ($19 900). Tradespersons, both men and women, also seem to fare relatively poorly. Their average wealth is the third lowest of all the occupational groups - $35 000 and $60 000 for women and men respectively. This may reflect the way many tradespeople have registered as businesses in recent years. They have done so for tax reasons or to get work from employers trying to undercut the legally required standards for employees' pay and work conditions. The wealth held by such individuals - registered in the name of the business rather than their own name - may not be accurately reflected in the NATSEM figures which relate to personal wealth.

Sectors that have become increasingly casualised in recent decades show relatively low levels of personal wealth. Thus, both women and men employed in the retail trade (averaging $33 600 and $84 000 wealth respectively) and in accommodation, restaurants and cafes ($24 400 and $51 900) have relatively low personal wealth. Men in the construction sector and working in cultural and recreational services also have relatively low average wealth, while women in cultural and recreational services and in personal and other services have low levels of accumulated wealth.

Gender inequalities evidently pervade these occupational and industry differences. Both women and men who are managers and administrators have relatively high average levels of personal wealth, yet there are twice as many men as women working in these areas. A similar situation applies to men and women engaged in agriculture, forestry and fishing.

In other industries such as finance and insurance, where there are more women than men employed, the women have conspicuously lower average wealth - 57 per cent and 27 per cent respectively of men's average personal wealth. The distinction in wealth accumulation between men and women working in the finance sector is especially striking and reflects deep levels of occupational segregation. Social and cultural attitudes and employment power differentials greatly influence these gendered inequalities of wealth.

Different types of households & their wealth

There is also an uneven distribution of wealth according to household composition. Couples - both with and without children - have tended to accumulate more wealth than households comprising a single person or sole parent. In households where the principal reference person is between 25-64 years of age, couples without children average slightly less than double the wealth of single persons. Couples with children typically have around three times the wealth of families comprising one parent with children.

Those with the lowest average wealth are single people and couples aged under 25 years; and sole parent households in the 25-64 age grouping, averaging $35 300, $76 900 and $234 300 respectively. These sole parent households are predominantly headed by women. By contrast, the wealthiest households on average are those containing couples with children and also those with no dependent children, where the principal reference person is aged 65 and over, accumulating an average wealth of $868 400 and $859 600 respectively.

Conclusion

The new information from NATSEM draws attention to important dimensions of wealth inequality in Australia. Analysis of the disaggregated yet overlapping categories - age, income, gender, occupation, industry and household composition - shows that wealth inequality exists at a number of levels. A political-economic analysis that recognises the interconnections between political, social, cultural and economic factors is necessary to show how wealth inequalities are structured and reproduced.

Do these inequalities matter? For a society that has historically sought some degree of fairness in economic outcomes, issues of equity are always important. The superficial egalitarian ethos in Australian society sits awkwardly beside the entrenched wealth inequalities that exist in practice. Economic inequality also creates social stresses. There is now mounting evidence linking inequality to ill health, crime, greater stresses on social services and lower levels of overall happiness in society.

A strikingly uneven distribution of wealth is a huge issue to tackle. Market processes left to themselves will not generate greater equality: concerted action by governments and strong pressure by the labour movement is necessary. In order to bring about progressive political economic change, it is first necessary to understand the sources and dimensions of the economic inequalities. The NATSEM wealth distribution data signal some important dimensions of this challenge.


Frank Stilwell & David Primrose. Frank Stilwell is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Sydney and is a well-known critic of neoliberal economics and an advocate of policies that emphasise sustainability and social justice. He is the author of 11 books the co-editor of four others, co-ordinating editor of the Journal of Australian Political Economy and an Executive member of the Evatt Foundation. His latest book (co-authored with Kirrily Jordan) is Who Gets What? Analysing Economic Inequality in Australia (Cambridge University Press, 2007). David Primrose is research assistant to Professor Frank Stilwell and a tutor in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.


About this article

This is an extract Equality Speaks, a new publication from Catalyst, an independent, not for profit network of unions, academics and progressive organisations. This extract does not include the tables or references. To read more about the publication and purchase a copy, go to the Catalyst website.