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Dr Tracey McDonald AM PhD FACN, Professor of Ageing, 2010

With the release of the 2010 Intergenerational Report 1 by the Australian government which outlines their view of future challenges up to 2050, came a sustained media portrayal of older Australians as burdensome to the economy, to younger generations and on the health system. A similar portrayal of older Australians accompanied the first Intergenerational Report by Treasurer Costello in 2004 2 which resulted in an outcry from senior Australians which may have caused the 2007 report 3 to be moderated somewhat in terms of the earlier alarmist language.

The 2004 report supported a campaign to discourage early retirement and urge employers to put in place strategies to retain older people in the workforce where they could continue to contribute to Australia’s economic and social prosperity. No doubt this was an effort to reverse the unintended consequence in the 1980s and 1990s of encouraging early retirement which caused many people to retire in their 50s and gave rise to an acute skills shortage across all areas of industry. The 2010 report appears to endorse the continued employment of people aged 60+ while heralding future reductions in availability of social support for older Australians with proposals to increase pension eligibility age to 67 years. Few people seem to realise that our recent recovery from the global financial crisis has been helped by the superannuation and home ownership of older Australians as well as their comparatively lower debt levels and that these economic variables continue to reinforce our international credit rating.

Predictions of increased demand for health care by future generations of older Australians assume that they will have similar health problems as previous generations. Such assumptions ignore the fact that generations from the 19th and 20th centuries did not have the same access to education, good nutrition, stable government, health services and safe environments, all of which will have affected their health. There is no good reason why successive generations of seniors will not be healthier, smarter, more independent and keen to live healthier lives than their forebears - therefore future demand on health services may NOT be anywhere near past levels.

It is true that Australians are getting older, but we are not ageing as fast as did previous generations. As the proportion of older Australians who are active, healthy, independent and available to get involved increases, so will their valuable contribution to social capital and community cohesion.

In fact, rather than being a burden on society, older Australians provide valuable services to the community. A significant proportion of community work is undertaken by retirees and their participation is essential to the ongoing provision of health and welfare work. Volunteers hold many of these services together and also play a crucial role in supporting young parents who are working, for example, by providing child care and assisting school children to learn basic skills as well as providing interest-free loans or financial security. Their unpaid contribution to volunteer and care work to all sections of the community has been estimated at around 7% of GDP4. Volunteering is not included in the GDP although the value of unpaid work was estimated (not including care for children and adults) at $14 billion in 2006. When both formal and informal volunteering is included (as it was in Canada in 2000) 5 an estimated $42 billion was added to their economic output.

Around 89% of people aged 75+ years live independently in the community where they continue to contribute to the economic and social health of our country. The money currently being spent on community and residential aged care services applies to around 11% of people aged over 75. Of that, about 6% receive residential aged care services6.

Health expenditure on all Australians as a proportion of GDP is almost 11% and by 2050 it could be 16-17% if we don’t change the way we view and organise our work-lives and systems of management. The ageing ‘boomer’ generation is better equipped to be self-sufficient than our previous ‘builder’ generation. Specifically, we have a high level of home ownership and an acceptance of responsibility for funding our own retirement through investments or superannuation schemes. With 90% of current workers contributing to compulsory superannuation, the cost of pensions which is currently at around 3% of GDP was predicted only to increase to 4.5% by 20517. Of course, that was before the sudden increase in immigration in the 2008-2009 periods.

As seniors increase in number to bring the population into social equilibrium, there will be significant social pressure on employment, commercial, education and social systems to value and encourage continued participation by seniors and call out discriminatory attitudes towards older Australians if national prosperity is to be preserved. I predict that the ‘boomer’ generation will most probably do what they have always done - they will either arrange for whatever they need to occur, or invent something that will achieve it. The last thing they want to do is rely on the largess of their offspring.

(Submitted to CHA for publication in Health Matters in March 2010. Permission granted by CHA for reprinting)
1 Commonwealth of Australia, The Hon. Wayne Swan, Treasurer, Australia to 2050: Future challenges, 2010 Intergenerational Report. Accessed at 9 February 2010.
2 Commonwealth of Australia, The Hon. Peter Costello, Treasurer, Australia’s demographic challenges 2004 Discussion Paper Accessed at on 16 February 2010.
3 Commonwealth of Australia, The Hon. Peter Costello, Treasurer, Intergenerational Report 2007. Accessed at on 16 February 2010.
4 De Vaus, D. et al Measuring the value of unpaid household, caring and voluntary work of older Australians. Research Paper No. 34. Australian Institute of Family Studies, October 2003, 24p. ISBN 0 642 395007 1. ISSN 1446-9863 5 Statistics Canada Volunteer work and extended measures, 1997 and 2000. Accessed at February 16, 2010
6 Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Health and Ageing Health and Ageing System: The concise fact book 2007. Accessed on February 16, 2010 at
7 Healy, J. The benefits of an ageing population. Discussion Paper No. 63. The Australia Institute. ISSN 1322-5421. March 2004

Last updated 18/11/2019
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