A new national wellbeing survey conducted by Australian Unity shows stark generational and income divides amid cost-of-living crisis, as well as the need to support Australian carers.

Australian Unity, the nation’s first member-owned wellbeing company, has released its latest Wellbeing Index survey report in partnership with Deakin University. Conducted in June 2023, the survey measured the subjective wellbeing of over 2,000 Australians aged 18 to 97 against a series of national and personal life areas, including the economy, health, and community connectedness. Researchers also examined the areas of mental distress and carer wellbeing (professional and informal).

Data collection occurred amid a challenging backdrop with global unrest, repeated interest rates rises, and more than half of the population reporting feelings of financial stress just months earlier. Against this climate, the survey found Australians’ overall satisfaction with their lives and life in Australia remained at record lows.

On the National Wellbeing Index, scores for most life areas remained at the lower end of the normal range. However, economic satisfaction recorded a sharp drop to its lowest level in 22 years – worse than that recorded during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008.

“Australians are feeling worried about the economy and financially stressed,” said Dr Kate Lycett, Research Fellow from the School of Psychology at Deakin University and lead researcher of the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index. “Rising living costs and interest rates are putting immense pressure on many people, particularly those with mortgages and those trying to get into the housing market. Without a lift in economic satisfaction, our national wellbeing will likely remain stagnant.”

Scores for life areas on the Personal Wellbeing Index remained similar to 2022 levels. However growing age and income inequities emerged. Those aged 55 years and under, and those with a household income of $100,000 or less, recorded notably lower personal wellbeing than older adults and those with higher household incomes respectively. These same age and income divides were also seen on satisfaction with standard of living.

“Addressing wellbeing inequities in these respective demographics is essential,” says Esther Kerr, Chief Executive Officer Wealth and Capital Markets at Australian Unity. “The findings likely reflect a ‘pressure cooker’ effect caused by the rising cost of living, higher interest rates, stubborn inflation, and global economic uncertainty. This appears to be affecting the financial wellbeing of people who were previously able to cope or had a savings buffer to carry them through tough times.”

In addition to measuring personal and national wellbeing, the survey also explored the wellbeing of Australians with professional and informal caring responsibilities. A timely exploration given the number of people aged 80 years and over is expected to triple by 2063, forecasting considerable pressure on the future care economy.

“Informal carers who undertook caring for more than 20 hours per week recorded notably lower personal wellbeing and higher levels of mental distress compared to those in professional caring and non-caring roles.”

Those with a caring load of 40 hours or more seemed to be doing even worse,” says Dr Lycett.

“These findings suggest that people with high caring commitments in informal capacities need more support.”

“They are also strong learnings for us as a society when we think about the ageing population and just how big the care economy is going to become.”

On the growing demand for professional caring services to help improve the wellbeing of those caring in an informal capacity, Prue Bowden, Australian Unity’s CEO of Home Health, said workforce supply for professional carers has been a key issue in Australia for many years now.

“The care economy is fundamental to the health of our whole society, not just our ageing population. It’s integral that we ensure workers in the industry are provided with secure, safe jobs with decent wages, conditions and opportunities for career development. In order for the care workforce to grow, we need to professionalise the work and shift the community mindset from being an unskilled job to one of the most rewarding careers,” Bowden adds.

The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index is one of the longest running national studies of subjective wellbeing in the world.

Since its inception in 2000, data from over 75,000 Australians has been widely used by researchers, governments and organisations to gain insights into how satisfied citizens are with their lives and the nation.