In 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, social cohesion in Australia increased significantly, reflecting our communities’ ability to unite and fight disaster.
But Australia’s social cohesion will begin to decline in 2022 amid a range of challenges, including economic and living pressures, global tensions such as Russia’s war in Ukraine and the impact of the pandemic.
This is the key finding of the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute’s 2022 Mapping Social Cohesion report, released this week.
What is reporting?
The report outlines the findings of an annual, nationally representative survey of social cohesion mapping. The survey, now in its 16th year, is a living public record of who we are in Australia and how we interact with each other.
Social cohesion refers to the cohesion, connectedness and cooperation of a society. When mapping social cohesion studies, we measure people’s cohesion
- sense of belonging in Australia
- sense of personal and financial worth
- Social inclusion and sense of justice in society (including their trust in government)
- participation in their communities
- Acceptance of diversity and difference.
The 2022 survey was conducted in July of this year. It surveyed nearly 5,800 people and asked more than 90 questions about social cohesion and related attitudes, perceptions and behaviors. This makes it the largest survey in the Mapping Social Cohesion series since 2007.
The increase in cohesion during the first year of the pandemic reflects the way Australians came together during the pandemic and responded positively to the government’s efforts to protect our health and well-being.
During the height of the pandemic in 2020, Australians reported higher levels of national pride and belonging, greater trust in government, greater social inclusion and social justice, and greater acceptance of people from different backgrounds. Researchers often find people moving through crises together — though it’s notable that this happened in Australia despite global divisions and protests during COVID.
As the community and government response to the pandemic has slowed, it is not particularly surprising that levels of cohesion have also declined. This could indicate pre-pandemic normalcy, and wouldn’t be a bad thing – historically, Australian society has reported high levels of social cohesion.
However, our results suggest that social cohesion may fall below pre-pandemic levels in the coming years. Australia’s declining sense of national belonging and economic justice are showing signs of the risks of reconciliation.
Indeed, the sense of national pride, belonging and social justice in Australia is now eroding and lower than before the pandemic.
The percentage of people who feel at home in Australia will drop from 77% in 2007 to 52% in 2022. Meanwhile, in 2022, 81% think the income gap between rich and poor is too great.
Social and economic inequalities have major implications for cohesion at national level. People who express a much weaker sense of social cohesion than others include young adults, people who are struggling financially, and people who have experienced discrimination.
Those who report specific financial hardship report a much lower sense of belonging, happiness and economic justice in Australia.
Read more: The most pressing problem facing Australia? New research shows that concern about climate change has skyrocketed
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 the future.
By 2022, nearly 90% believe multiculturalism has been good for Australia, while nearly 80% believe the influx of diverse immigrants has made Australia stronger. Australians are more likely than in the past to think that immigrants are good for Australian society, culture and economy.
In all these indicators, a positive attitude towards multiculturalism and diversity has increased in recent years. While support for multiculturalism has traditionally been strong among young adults, the strongest increase in support since 2018 has been among older Australians.
Australians’ sense of belonging and cohesion in their local neighborhoods also remains strong and growing, helping us to stay connected through difficult times.
The proportion of people who trust their neighbors of different backgrounds increased from 76% in 2018 to 84% in 2020 and remained at that high level in 2022 (83%). This raises the important question of how we can harness the power of our neighborhood to improve national integration.
There is a tremendous opportunity to learn from what has been done right – and what has been done badly – during the pandemic to reverse the decline in social cohesion. There is evidence that community and government efforts need to be made to address the social and economic inequalities that undermine overall cohesion.
Our closeness to our neighborhood and our support for multiculturalism and diversity can be powerful assets in connecting people within and beyond local communities.
Recent experience shows that through such efforts we can envision a stronger and more united Australia in years to come.