Inequality in Australia: insights from the Life Chances Study 1990–2024

Dina Bowman and Ursula Harrison

The final report wrapping up our 34-year longitudinal study.

At a glance

The Life Chances Study followed 167 infants from two inner-Melbourne suburbs from birth until early 2024. The families in the study reflected the diversity of the two suburbs with a mix of high, middle and low-income families, private renters, public housing tenants and homeowners.

Over the years, Life Chances has provided insights into the impacts of advantage and disadvantage over four life phases:

  • the early years
  • the school years
  • transitions from school
  • work and family life.

At each stage of the study various aspects of inequality were examined to highlight impacts on the financial security and life chances of the participants.

Dive deeper

As a generation, the Life Chances participants have experienced the same political, social and economic changes. They have lived through the recession of the early 1990s when they were young children, the global financial crisis when they were teenagers and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic and cost-of-living crisis. Yet these experiences were mediated by their social positioning – whether they are well off or not, their family circumstances, their gender and ethnicity. A Vietnamese Australian participant from a low-income background observed: ‘No-one starts off at the same place. But they’re still forced to do the same race.’

At a time when the gap between the rich and poor is widening, qualitative research like the Life Chances Study shows the uneven impacts of policies that have eroded the social contract.

Across 34 years of research, this study has emphasised the importance of social policy and programs to even the odds for those experiencing disadvantage. While shifts in policy have created opportunities for some, there have been increased costs and risks for others, resulting in uneven impacts for the participants in this study.

Over the course of the study, we have identified multiple and intersecting social policy, infrastructure and service improvements that could make a difference to the life chances of those living with economic insecurity and disadvantage. While there has been some progress, many of the recommendations from earlier reports still stand.

Policy recommendations have focused on addressing inequities, including by developing policies that enable:

  • accessible, responsive health and support services for new parents and their infants, including families whose first language is not English
  • affordable quality early childhood education and care to provide opportunities for all children, regardless of their family circumstances
  • reduction of costs associated with compulsory education to create opportunities for children from low-income families and support academic aspirations
  • appropriate learning opportunities for young people with low academic achievement and learning difficulties; education, training and employment services that are ‘youth friendly’ and incorporate a holistic approach to wellbeing
  • education and career guidance to assist young people to make informed choices about their education and training
  • employment services and support to help young people into jobs that match their skills, interests and aspirations
  • inclusive workplaces to provide career opportunities for workers, regardless of their caring responsibilities
  • gender equity, including addressing high effective marginal tax rates; developing new models of paid parental leave; encouraging greater take-up by men of flexible work, boost affordability and availability of childcare
  • fair and adequate income support for people as they move in and out of work across the life course
  • secure, affordable housing, through reinvestment in public housing, the introduction of rental standards, and addressing the treatment of investment properties
  • affordable, accessible social infrastructure such as transport.

As the study ends, it is timely to consider the value of longitudinal research that reminds us of the uneven impacts of social, technological, economic and political changes.

Last updated on 5 June 2024