Executive Diary

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How often do we say that ageing issues do not get enough attention in the public debate?

Not this time. Recently we’ve seen an extraordinary range of characters, commentators, experts and would-be experts, lining up for a headline on ageing.

The issues have been diverse - from pension age to eligibility tests, employment and the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card.

The commentary has conveniently been framed in the negative - the end of the world is nigh.  Even a considered speech from the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank, Philip Lowe, was reported in terms of an ageing population threatening to entrench a growth-stifling culture of risk aversion…from parliament to boardrooms and even to the design of children’s playgrounds.  

The negative narrative extends to an unwillingness to recognise the productivity opportunities and contribution that an ageing population is and will continue to deliver.

The key starting point to recognition of the contribution by older Australians is the challenge of employment and links to proposals to raise the pension age.

The proposition has been floated for a shift in the pension age to 70 years at some point in the future. Australia is a frontrunner in shifting the age from 65 to 67 by 2023.

Sound arguments are advanced about the health, capacity and opportunity that 65s have today to continue in the workplace, compared to a century ago when the pension was created. Indeed many people currently choose to work past age 65.

There is also no doubt that growth pressure on the economy will continue to be a driver for this debate.

What is conveniently glossed over is the continuing blight and impediment of mature age unemployment.

Oft quoted but too frequently ignored, is that 55 year olds who lose their jobs face an average of 72 weeks out of employment – substantially longer than other age groups.

Regrettably, the growth in the number of over 50s accessing the disability pension indicates many never return to the workplace and are quietly shuffled out of the employment market.

The damage to the wellbeing, health and financial outlook for these older Australians is mirrored in the loss recorded by their families, communities, and indeed, the nation.

Disturbingly, there is an increasing view that the decade ahead will see pressure on traditional white collar and middle management occupations as the march of technology will cause seismic shifts in employment patterns.

Consider that Access Economics research for the Human Rights Commission has revealed that a 5% increase in participation by the over 55s would provide a $48 billion dollar boost to the economy – equivalent to 2.4% of national income.

A shift in attitude across the community including business, government and individuals is necessary – and, yes, it will require individuals to accept that traditional patterns of employment will disappear. Community attitudes to ageing will be critical in ensuring a level playing field for workers.

The distraction of a long-off shift in the pension age being painted as the panacea for future fiscal challenges really is a nonsense. Let’s have the debate when we have, as a nation, demonstrated our capacity to ensure sustainable employment and participation for people in their 50s and through to their 60s.

In the meantime, note to self: concentrate on risk aversion and its impact on playgrounds, supermarket aisles, drinking coffee, walking in the park, going to theatre, celebrating birthdays…such an adjustment in lifestyle is required.

This article by National Seniors Australia chief executive Michael O'Neill was originally published in the April-May 2014 edition of 50 something magazine

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