The Census Clairvoyant — Futures Told


The Australian Census is coming. It will be on Tuesday 10th August. That’s the only prediction I am likely to get 100% right.

What are some of the key themes that might be revealed by a Census taken in the midst of a pandemic? I have one prediction which might sound counter intuitive. If I am right, you can praise my insights and almost psychic forecasting powers. If I am wrong, I will bury this article and forever deny its existence.

So what’s the prediction? I am going out on a limb and will suggest that despite all the debate and discussion about Covid-19 and working from home (WFH), the increase in the overall proportion of people working from home won’t be as great as much of the media might have you think.

For some context, the proportion of all Australians who worked from home in previous Censuses has been relatively stable. In 2006, it was 4.88%. In 2011 it was 4.48%. In 2016 it was 4.75%. (Thanks to Urban Economics for the numbers). That period saw an exponential growth in technological capacity, but it was a virus that finally achieved what technology could not – sending many CBD workers out of the office and home to their kitchen tables. And many are politely declining the opportunity to return. This recent article titled “The five-day office week is dead, long live the hybrid model, says productivity boss” features research by The Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald of 50 of the largest office worker type companies. The research indicates “an overwhelming majority expect to continue allowing employees to work at least part of the week from home once the pandemic ends.”

That is also reflected in Property Council data which reveals most major CBDs are struggling to get past the two thirds mark of pre-pandemic occupancy. The reasons are revealing, with the majority citing a preference for work from home flexibility over the 5 day commute to the CBD office, not safety or other considerations. This aligns with similar evidence from both the USA and Europe. Working from home will have a lasting impact on CBD and inner city office workers - and their workplaces - around the world.

So how is it I am silly enough to predict that this Census, taken as we begin to emerge from a pandemic (albeit now with Sydney in the grips of another city-wide lockdown), will underwhelm many with the actual numbers working from home? Obviously there will be an increase, and it may even get closer to 10% (which yes, is a doubling on previous years, but off a small base). That would still mean around 90% of Australian workers are travelling to a workplace. Why?

First, let’s recall that CBDs only employ around 10% of a metro area’s workforce. We have consistently attributed CBDs with much greater economic function than has been borne out by the Census or other data sources. Those almost mythical powers have perhaps been bestowed on city centres because that’s also where the great majority of government agencies are based, along with the media, many academics and certainly the wealthy professional class. We aren’t very good at seeing the bigger picture outside the inner-city bubble.

Not only do CBDs account for a small proportion of the workforce, they are also relatively slow growing. The Census of 2016 showed – in the case of Brisbane at least but a trend I understand was also found in Sydney and Melbourne – that the CBD was the slowest growing place of work. In the 5 years from 2011 to 2016, it added just 6,354 workers. That’s full time, permanent and part time, from cleaners to CEOs. That was just a 5% increase on the 2011 number, and only a 3% share of the 183,901 new jobs created across the metro region in that time. By comparison, the inner city grew by 7%, the inner ring by 9%, and the metro/suburban region, grew by 12%. The Gold and Sunshine Coasts grew by 25% and 23% respectively. The further away from the CBD, the faster the jobs growth. The trend of the suburbanisation of jobs was well and truly underway already.

Read the rest of this piece at The Pulse.

Ross Elliott has more than twenty years experience in property and public policy. His past roles have included stints in urban economics, national and state roles with the Property Council, and in destination marketing. He has written extensively on a range of public policy issues centering around urban issues, and continues to maintain his recreational interest in public policy through ongoing contributions such as this or via his monthly blog, The Pulse.