FactCheck: is South Australia’s youth population rising or falling?

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill and SA Best leader Nick Xenophon provided different narratives about youth populations in the state. AAP Images/Morgan Sette

FactCheck: is South Australia’s youth population rising or falling?

Nick Xenophon: The key issue here – and what I find most galling and emblematic of what is wrong – is we now have fewer young people in South Australia than we did 36 years ago, when our population was 400,000 fewer.

Jay Weatherill: And Nick – you’ve done it before. You’ve said that there are fewer young people here than there were in 1982. You know what you need to do to actually reach that conclusion?

You take the high point in 1981 – it falls all the way to 2002. Since 2002 to now, it’s grown by 36,000.

Sure, it’s less than 1981-82 now, but you have to ignore the fact that, under the entire life of this government, it has actually grown, the number of young people has grown.

– SA Best leader Nick Xenophon and Premier Jay Weatherill, speaking at the SA Votes: Leaders’ Debate, Adelaide, March 5, 2018

In a leaders’ debate ahead of the South Australian election, Premier Jay Weatherill and SA Best leader Nick Xenophon disagreed over the extent to which young people were leaving the state in search of better opportunities.

Xenophon claimed that “we now have fewer young people in South Australia than we did 36 years ago, when our population was 400,000 fewer”.

Weatherill agreed that there are fewer young people in South Australia now than there were in 1981-82, but said that in quoting that figure, Xenophon had ignored “the fact that, under the entire life of this [Labor] government … the number of young people has grown”.

Were the leaders right? And what’s behind these trends?

Checking the sources

In response to a request for sources and comment, a spokesperson for Xenophon pointed The Conversation to the 2017 Deloitte report Shaping Future Cities: Make it big Adelaide, which states:

Fewer people aged between 15 and 34 live in South Australia today than in the mid-1980s, despite the fact that the population has increased by around 340,000 people in that time.

The claim Xenophon made during the debate echoed a quote from an SA Best policy document, which states that there are “fewer young people – 18-to-34 year olds – living in South Australia today than 35 years ago”, and that this is “emblematic of the state’s decline”. So we’ll take 18-34 as Xenophon’s reference point.

A spokesperson for Jay Weatherill referred The Conversation to a 2018 report from the South Australian Centre for Economic Studies, and pointed to Australian Bureau of Statistics data showing that in the 0-24 age group, there was a decrease of 53,395 people between 1982 and 2002, followed by an increase of 36,742 people between 2002 (when Labor was returned to office under) and June 2017.

You can read the full response from Weatherill’s spokesperson here.


Verdict

During a South Australian leaders’ debate, SA Best leader Nick Xenophon and Premier Jay Weatherill provided different narratives about youth population trends.

Xenophon said “we now have fewer young people in South Australia than we did 36 years ago, when our population was 400,000 fewer” – a statistic he said was “emblematic” of employment issues in the state.

Both leaders used different definitions of “young people”.

Using SA Best’s own definition, Xenophon was incorrect. There were more people aged 18 to 34 in South Australia in 1982 than today. However, based on Weatherill’s definition (people 0 to 24 years), and another relevant definition (people 15 to 24 years), Xenophon’s statement is correct.

Weatherill was correct to say that since 2002, “under the entire life of this [Labor] government … the number of young people has grown”.

The proportion of young people in South Australia’s total population (across all three definitions) has declined since the early 1980s, but the decline has slowed since 2002.

However, none of the numbers are a simple reflection of the failure or success of government policies. There are also a number of longer term economic and social trends at play.



How do we define ‘young people’?

There’s no single definition of “young people” – and as you would expect, different definitions provide different outcomes.

During the campaign, the relevant policy document from Xenophon’s SA Best party described “young people” as being between the ages of 18 and 34.

Weatherill used a definition of young people as those aged between 0 and 24. (Keeping in mind that young people aged 0-17 are unlikely to leave the state of their own accord).

Each leader chose to highlight the numbers that best supported their own narrative.

Another way of examining this issue is to look at young people aged 15-24.

This is an age when many young people become independent, and may move away from South Australia to finish their education or find employment.

So here are the age ranges we’ll be looking at:

  • 0-24 year olds (Weatherill’s definition)
  • 15-24 year olds (highly mobile demographic), and
  • 18-34 year olds (Xenophon’s definition).

Did the leaders quote their numbers correctly?

Xenophon said “we now have fewer young people in South Australia than we did 36 years ago, when our population was 400,000 fewer”.

According to Census data, South Australia’s population in 1981 was 1,285,042. In 2016, the Census recorded 1,676,653 people – a difference of 391,611.

Given that Xenophon was speaking in a live debate, rounding this number up to 400,000 is understandable.

In 1982, there were around 378,000 people aged 18-34 in South Australia, compared to just over 390,000 in 2017. In terms of raw numbers, that’s an increase of around 12,000 people. So on those calculations (using his own definition), Xenophon was incorrect.

However, based on the numbers for 0 to 24 year olds (Weatherill’s definition), and 15 to 24 year olds, Xenophon’s statement is correct.

The proportion of 18-34 year olds also fell from around 28% of the total population in 1982, to around about 23% in 2017.

Do Weatherill’s numbers stack up?

Weatherill pointed to 1981 as being a “high point” in youth population in South Australia.

It’s true that in the early 1980s, youth population numbers and youth as a proportion of the total population were higher.

It’s also true that the raw numbers of young people in South Australia then declined until the early 2000s. As the first chart in this FactCheck shows, after 2002 there was growth in the numbers of young people across all three definitions.

(Labor was returned to office in 2002, led by Mike Rann. Weatherill became premier in 2011.)

So, in terms of raw population numbers, Weatherill was correct to say that “under the entire life of this government … the number of young people has grown”.

Using Weatherill’s own definition (0-24 year olds), there was an increase of 36,742 people (in line with his original quote of 36,000).

The proportion of young people across all three definitions has declined since the early 1980s (though that decline has slowed since 2002).

Interestingly, as the chart shows, the decline in the proportion of 0-24 year olds has been greater than the proportions of the 15-24 and 18-34 cohorts, which have stayed relatively static under the four terms of the Labor government.

This is where the numbers tell us a new story – the biggest decline has been in the proportion of younger children. This suggests that falling fertility rates may have been a driver.

As you can see from the chart below, total fertility rates in South Australia did fall between 2008 and 2016.

What’s driving these trends?

The leaders were discussing these numbers in the context of the viability of South Australia as a place where young people can find work and affordable housing, and preventing the so-called “brain drain” that occurs when young people leave the state in search of opportunities elsewhere.

During the debate, Xenophon (and SA Liberal leader Steven Marshall) painted a picture of increasing numbers of young people leaving South Australia, while Weatherill told the story of youth population growth “under the entire life of this [Labor] government”.

None of the numbers are a simple reflection of the failure or success of government policies that may help to retain youth populations. There are larger historical trends at play.

Understanding the ‘Baby Boomer’ effect

We cannot fully understand why South Australia had more young people in the 1980s and 1990s than it does today without looking back to the postwar period of 1946 to 1964 – the years when the “Baby Boomer” generation was born.

The baby boom was particularly pronounced in South Australia, and coincided with a strong manufacturing sector that attracted young people from other states, and migrants during a period of high immigration rates (migrants also tend to be young).

This convergence meant that the early 1980s was a unique time in South Australian population trends.

The first wave of the Baby Boomers (born in the late 1940s and early 1950s) were having children, and those children would have been counted in the 1981 Census. At the same time, the late cohort of Baby Boomers (those born in the late 1950s and 1960s) would still have been included in the 20-24 year old Census cohort.

This was followed by a “baby bust”, or falling fertility rate. From a peak in the early 1960s, family sizes declined, reflecting national trends.

Economic factors are also at play

A number of economic events that took place in the early 1990s also had an impact on South Australia’s population profile.

A 2018 report published by the South Australian Centre for Economic Studies (SACES) noted that, in addition to the national recession, South Australia was affected by:

  • the collapse of State Bank in 1991
  • the loss of headquartered companies around the same time, and
  • the loss of “mass manufacturing” employment, which began in the 1980s and accelerated in the early 1990s.

The SACES report found that between 1993-94 and 2001-02, South Australia’s population growth was affected by “sharply reduced overseas immigration and increased outward migration to interstate”. The authors added that:

The dominant cohorts of those who left South Australia were young people and young families.

They did not return and they married and/or had children adding to other states’ younger aged profile while depleting our own.

It would be interesting to see how the numbers of international students in South Australia affect the composition of youth populations. People on student visas who are residents of South Australia are captured in Census data, but the data we need to properly analyse this factor are not readily available. – Helen Barrie

Blind review

The author offers a sound consideration of the available evidence.

The proportion of young people in South Australia has declined since the early 1980s – whether defined as those aged 0-24, 15-24, or 18-34 years.

Despite the decline in the proportion of young people, population momentum means that the South Australian population is still growing, albeit not as strongly as the Australian population overall. – Liz Allen

The Conversation thanks Liz Allen for providing the data used to create the charts in this FactCheck.


The Conversation thanks The University of South Australia for supporting our FactCheck team during the South Australian election.


The Conversation FactCheck is accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network.

The Conversation’s FactCheck unit was the first fact-checking team in Australia and one of the first worldwide to be accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network, an alliance of fact-checkers hosted at the Poynter Institute in the US. Read more here.

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