Published: July 16, 2019

Improved older-age cognition, marital matches and financial assets are some of the long-term benefits that Australian women received from 1960s compulsory schooling policies.

A new Life Course Centre Working Paper is the first to provide an overview of the lifecycle benefits of raising the minimum school leaving age, and how these affect men and women differently. The paper looks at the long-term benefits of reforms that raised the minimum school leaving age from 14 to 15 in the Australian States of South Australia and Victoria in the 1960s. This age has since been continuously raised in Australia and other western economies and in most recent cases has lifted to 17 or even 18, obliging students to either be in education or training until the minimum school leaving age is reached. The policy changes in South Australia and Victoria in the 1960s are of high scientific value as the affected individuals have reached retirement age today, allowing for broad long-term analysis beyond the immediate impact on education and short-term labour market outcomes.

The authors explore the consequences of increasing the minimum school leaving age by using high quality nationally representative survey data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey. They find that the change to the minimum school leaving age in South Australia and Victoria in the 1960s was particularly effective in improving educational attainment for women, helping many girls to complete high school. For boys, the effects were more mixed and mostly kept them in school to complete Year 10.

In the long run, the reforms improved women’s older-age cognition, wages and lifetime financial assets. Women also experienced higher quality marital matches, as measured by lower divorce probabilities and better educated partners. For men, the reforms mainly produced non-cognitive outcomes, such as pro-social behaviour, belief and happiness, but these did not translate into higher wages and wealth. This research is highly policy relevant as the findings, although tentative, suggest the non-market benefits may outweigh the high costs of forcing children at the margin, who would otherwise have left, to stay in school longer. The 1960s reforms may also have led to female empowerment during a time when women were expected to be the homemaker or work in low-skilled professions.

You can read the full Working Paper here.