Collapsing immigration boosts Australia’s workforce participation


Following the 1982-83 and 1990-91 recessions, Australia’s labour force participation rate – defined as the sum of all workers who are employed or actively seeking work as a share of the total working-age population – fell significantly.

For example, between 1990 and 1993, Australia’s participation rate fell by 1¾ percentage points as the economy entered recession.

The COVID-19 recession has been different. As shown in the next chart, Australia’s participation rate is now hovering around an all-time high at 66.1% seasonally adjusted after briefly falling sharply as lockdowns took effect:


This compares to an average labour force participation rate of around 60% between 1999-2003 and an average of 66% between 2018-2019.

The result is surprising given the Morrison Government temporarily boosted the JobSeeker unemployment payment via the Coronavirus Supplement, which according to employment groups has reduced incentives to look for work and driven labour market shortages. The sharp lift in the participation rate debunks this claim as it suggests the number of people interested in working is at an all-time high.

According to Roy Morgan Research, labour force participation is also highest among Australians across the three age groups aged 18-49:


Overall, 89% of people aged 18-24 are in the workforce (72% employed and 17% unemployed), 88% of people aged 25-34 are in the workforce (78% employed and 10% unemployed) and 88% of people aged 35-49 are in the workforce (81% employed and 7% unemployed).

Roy Morgan CEO, Michele Levine, also believes the collapse in immigration is part of the reason why Australia’s labour force participation rate has rebounded so strongly:

“These figures show that one of the most direct impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is to accelerate the trends of the last twenty years and increase workforce participation to record highs as immigration to Australia has plunged and many foreigners on working visas have departed.

“The acceleration of the long-term trend over the last twenty years provided by COVID-19 means the workforce participation rate of those aged 18-49 is now approaching 90%”.


This statement would assume that migrants have lower labour force participation than the Australian born population – a point confirmed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Characteristics of Recent Migrants Report:

As shown above, temporary residents (most notably international students) have lower labour force participation rates than the Australian born population.


Accordingly, it is reasonable to assume that the sharp loss of temporary migrants due to the COVID-19 pandemic has worked to increase the average labour force participation rate across the nation, especially among younger age groups where temporary migrants dominate.

About the author
Leith van Onselen is Chief Economist at the MB Fund and MB Super. He is also a co-founder of MacroBusiness. Leith has previously worked at the Australian Treasury, Victorian Treasury and Goldman Sachs.