History of wages in Australia

It’s one of life’s maxims: the cost of living is always rising, and pay packets are never big enough.

We live in one of the most expensive countries on the planet, but we also have one of the world’s highest minimum wages. So let’s take a look at how wages and the cost of living have changed over the decades.

What’s a minimum wage?

The idea of income protection was first broached by Victoria in 1896, when basic wages were set in place for six industries: footwear; men’s clothing; women’s clothing; collars and cuffs [nice!]; bakeries; and furniture. Other states followed suit and in 1907 the notion of a national basic wage was established at £2 2s per week. In today’s money, that’s around $320.

And over the decades, that basic weekly wage has increased:

1946: £6/19/11 (converting and taking inflation into account, today that would be around $500)

1966: $38 (= $507)

1976: just under $100 (= $636)

1986: around $160 (= $430)

1996: over $300

2006: around $500

2016: $673

In 2020 the minimum wage was $740.80 per 38-hour week ($19.49 per hour).
Photo of a brown paper bag with peanuts spilling out against a white background. It has Pay Packet written on it

The gender gap

Of course, these historic rates were for male workers. Until World War II, when they were welcomed into the workforce (at least temporarily), women received half-pay, even though they often did the same work as men. The man was the breadwinner; a woman’s role was to look after her family, so if she happened to have a job outside of the home, she didn’t need to be paid the equivalent of her husband. Even today, men earn around $25k more than women. What ever happened to the idea of equal pay?!

What would your money buy?

**Loaf of bread **

1911  4d

1940  5d

1960  18d

1970  21¢

1980  54¢

2000  $2.35

2020  $3.50

Bottle of milk

1911  5d

1940  7d

1960  18d

1970  19¢

1980  63¢

2000  $1.40

2020  $1.30

Averaging it out

So what did your average Aussie earn in the past? If you worked in a factory, you’d earn around:

  • £200 a year in 1920 (= $14,200)
  • £250 in 1940 (= $21,500)
  • £300 in 1950 (= $15,800)

If you were a manager or a clerk, you could swap your blue collar for a white one and earn around:

  • £300 a year in 1920 (= $21,300)
  • £376 in 1940 (= $32,400)
  • £433 in 1950 (= $22,800)

Rental payments would have been inching towards half your weekly income, and buying a house would have set you back the equivalent of around $67k in 1920 and $130k in 1950.

In the 1960s, along with the Beatles and the Stones, there came inflation and wage growth. Average incomes increased from $12,400 in 1966, and to $36,890 in 1978. Doctors were now at the top of the heap, receiving three to four times the average salary.

Photo of eight Australian coins from the 50s and 60s

And pensions?

In 1966 the single pension was $676 per annum. As the cost of living began to rise, so too did the pension:

1979: $3010

1985: $4903

1995: $8733

2005: $12,256

2015: $20,498

2020: $22,375

Today’s top 10ish earners

[0. Prime Ministers – $549,250]

  1. Surgeons – $400,000
  2. Anaesthetists – $365,000
  3. Medical specialists – $300,000
  4. Finance dealers – $265,000
  5. Psychiatrists – $215,000
  6. Medical practitioners – $205,000
  7. Legal profession – $195,000
  8. Mining engineers – $165,000
  9. CEOs and MDs – $158,000
  10. Engineering managers – $148,000
  11. Plumbers – over $100,000]

Professions from the past

Some jobs have disappeared in only the past decade or so; others are reminders of an earlier, less technical age. Remember these people from the past?

  • Video store clerks
  • Photo processors
  • Switchboard operators
  • Lift attendants
  • Icemen
  • Rag and bone men
  • Knocker-uppers
  • Night-soil collectors
  • Lamplighters
  • Telegram boys
  • Cigarette girls
  • Movie projectionists

Black and white photo of a female vintage switch board operator.

The robots are taking over!

It’s predicted that almost half of the jobs we do today will be automated in the future. It’s cruel but true: professionals are being replaced by algorithms. You might find some of these endangered jobs surprising:

  • Accountants
  • Travel agents
  • Bank tellers
  • Postal workers
  • Mortgage brokers and financial planners
  • Radio and TV presenters
  • News reporters
  • Middle managers
  • Cashiers

But along with hands-on professionals such as therapists, social workers and physicians, there’s one profession that will always be in demand and well paid: plumbers!

Main image: Melissa Walker Horn

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