Inequality, disadvantage, social justice – these are the issues that underpin social work and that drive those who work in the industry.
But in Australia, these issues are not static; they evolve and shift as circumstances change. We sat down with Charles Sturt University (CSU) social work academics to uncover the changes and challenges society will undergo in the coming decades, and how these changes will affect the role of social work – and social workers – in the future.
The ageing population dilemma
The most recent Australian census found that people aged 65 years and over now make up nearly one in six (16 per cent) of the country’s population. This has risen from one in seven people in 2011, and from one in 25 at the start of the last century. Increased longevity – due in part to superior healthcare – combined with a decreased birthrate means that this proportion of the population is likely to continue to grow.
Belinda Cash, Lecturer in Social Work and Human Services at CSU, explained the impact this demographic shift will have on society and social work.
“The demographic shift of an ageing population is bringing about significant changes for health and welfare services. It’s a changing and dynamic time for society, and therefore for social work too. Social workers are involved with individuals across all stages of life, so we understand that there can be significant impacts on ageing and later life depending on a range of variables that affect individuals, families and social groups – even from before birth. This knowledge suggests that there will continue to be groups of vulnerable older Australians – and other subgroups of the population – that are likely to come to the forefront of social work in coming generations.”
The tyranny of distance
An ongoing issue that future social workers will still need to address is the inequality of service across communities. This is particularly apparent in rural and Indigenous communities, who are often more disadvantaged in terms of accessing services than their urban counterparts. As Ms Cash explained, the way many social work services are set up has a huge impact on how, and even if, individuals can access them.
“Many social workers try to understand the impact of economic policies on human populations. It’s real people who are affected when we bring about market-based systems for health, welfare and care. Privatised markets make a lot of assumptions that people have the resources to be able to access and engage in those systems. In social work, we understand that access to resources can be a huge issue.
“These challenges can be particularly evident in rural areas, which often suffer from ‘the tyranny of distance’. A lot of funding and policy decisions stem from metropolitan areas, so there can be a lot of assumptions made about service availability, adequate staffing and geographic accessibility, which is not always a reality for people living in rural and remote areas of Australia.”
Dr Karen Bell, Associate Professor in Social Work and Human Services at CSU, does see that social work service delivery is changing in rural areas to try to address these inequalities.
“There is certainly a shift in rural areas, in things like aged care and child and family welfare. Things, like getting services embedded in communities and having more primary care at a preventative level on the ground, are being seen as increasingly important to prevent more complex issues developing in the future.
“And there is a growing recognition that in terms of rural and Indigenous communities there need to be different models of service delivery and that solutions can’t all come from the metro-centric space. Social work has a key part to play in devising and delivering those different ways of providing services.”
The tech equation
Industries of the future – from agriculture to education – will be influenced by technological innovation, and social work is no different, as Ms Cash explained.
“Society, in general, is more open to technological solutions. Nowadays we are much more comfortable with technology, and there’s no reason why social work wouldn’t, shouldn’t or couldn’t embrace technological possibilities to help increase its reach. And certainly when working with younger people, using digital communication to deliver services is more expected. So it’s absolutely something social work will need to embrace.”
Dr Bell felt that technology won’t only assist clients but will also help social work practitioners be their best.
“Things like e-counselling and online counselling are gaining momentum, particularly in mental health services and more generally in rural service delivery. And I think technology will become increasingly embedded in how we deliver social work services. It also allows local, national and global networking among service providers. That’s part of being a professional; accessing the latest knowledge and providing the best service to clients.”
Social workers of the future
As the issues that social work deals with continue to be significant in Australian society – and beyond – Ms Cash sees opportunities for committed individuals to make a difference across many aspects of the industry.
“It’s often a misconception of social work that it just concerns working one on one with clients; there are actually a lot more levels of opportunity, such as leadership and policy. Social workers get involved to ensure that social justice is at the forefront of macro changes that filter down to impact upon the lives of families and individuals.”
“Social work is one of the few professions that isn’t just about providing a service. It also includes advocacy and social justice at the forefront of our thinking. So besides providing social work services, we are also concerned with how structures and systems – on multiple levels – impact upon individuals. There are so many opportunities within social work, and every student’s career journey will be unique. The profession is really multidimensional. Understanding and working with people in their environment and all the richness and variety of human experience is something that social work does really well. Social workers are critical thinkers looking at ways to bring about positive change whether at the personal or policy level.”
This article was produced for Career FAQs by Charles Sturt University.
Jenny found her way with words while interning during uni, since, she's produced articles on it all – from hair and beauty to homewares, travel, career advice and study tips. On a weekend you're most likely to find her lining up for a table at the latest cafe or restaurant.