Inflation, COVID, inequality: new report shows Australia's social cohesion is at crossroads
But on the positive side, support for multiculturalism and ethnic diversity continues to grow and is likely to be a valuable asset to our social cohesion in future.
Back in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, social cohesion in Australia remarkably increased, reflecting the ability of our communities to unite and pull through disaster.
But Australia’s social cohesion has begun to decline in 2022 amid a range of challenges including economic and cost of living pressures, global tensions such as Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the lingering effects of the pandemic.
This is the key finding of the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute’s 2022 Mapping Social Cohesion report released this week.
What’s the report?
The report outlines the findings of the annual, nationally representative Mapping Social Cohesion survey. Now in its 16th year, the survey is a living public record of who we are in Australia and how we connect with each other.
Social cohesion reflects the harmony, connectedness and cooperation of society. In the Mapping Social Cohesion study, we measure cohesion by people’s
- sense of belonging in Australia
- sense of personal and financial worth
- sense of social inclusion and justice in society (including their trust in government)
- participation in their communities
- acceptance of diversity and differences.
The 2022 survey was conducted in July this year. It surveyed almost 5,800 people, asking more than 90 questions devoted to social cohesion and related attitudes, perceptions and behaviours. This makes it the largest survey in the Mapping Social Cohesion series since 2007.
The spike in cohesion during the first year of the pandemic likely reflects the way Australians came together during the pandemic and responded positively to government efforts to protect our health and wellbeing.
During the height of the pandemic in 2020, Australians reported higher levels of national pride and belonging, trust in government, greater social inclusion and social justice, and increased acceptance of people from different backgrounds. Researchers often find that people pull together through crises – though it’s striking this occurred in Australia despite global divisions and protests during COVID.
As the community and government response to the pandemic has been scaled back, it’s not especially surprising that the level of cohesion has also waned. That may signal a return to a pre-pandemic normal, and that wouldn’t be a terrible thing – historically, Australian society has reported high social cohesion.
However, our results suggest social cohesion could fall below pre-pandemic normal in the coming years. A declining sense of national belonging and economic fairness in Australia are warning signs of the risks to cohesion.
Indeed national pride, belonging, and the sense of social justice in Australia are all now declining and lower than they were before the pandemic.
The proportion of people saying they have a great sense of belonging in Australia declined from 77% in 2007 to 52% in 2022. Meanwhile, 81% of people in 2022 agree the gap in incomes between rich and poor is too large.
Social and economic inequalities are major drags on national-level cohesion. Those who express a much weaker sense of social cohesion than others include young adults, people who are struggling financially, and people who experience discrimination.
People who report financial struggles, in particular, report a much lower sense of belonging, happiness and economic fairness in Australia.
What about our strengths?
On the positive side, support for multiculturalism and ethnic diversity continues to grow, and is likely to be a valuable asset to our social cohesion in future.
Almost 90% of people in 2022 think multiculturalism has been good for Australia, while about 80% believe that a diverse immigrant intake has made Australia stronger. Australians are also more likely than in the past to think that immigrants are good for Australian society, culture and the economy.
Across all these indicators, positive attitudes to multiculturalism and diversity has increased in recent years. While support for multiculturalism has traditionally been strong among younger adults, the strongest increase in support since 2018 has been among older Australians.
Australians’ sense of belonging and cohesion in their local neighbourhoods also remains high and growing, helping us to remain connected through challenging times.
The proportion of people who believe their neighbours from different backgrounds get on well together increased from 76% in 2018 to 84% in 2020 and has remained at that high level in 2022 (83%). This raises the key question of how we can draw on the strengths of our neighbourhoods to improve national cohesion.
There remains a great opportunity to learn from what was done well during the pandemic – and what was done poorly – to address the decline in social cohesion. The evidence points to the need for community and government efforts to address social and economic inequalities that drag down overall cohesion.
Our neighbourhood connections and our support for multiculturalism and diversity can be powerful assets in helping to connect people within and across local communities.
Recent experience suggests that through such efforts, we can imagine an ever stronger and cohesive Australia in coming years.
James O'Donnell receives funding from Scanlon Foundation Research Institute.