Harnessing the Ageing Boom

| May 27, 2013

The Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Eric Abetz delivered the opening address to the Productive Ageing Conference at NSW Parliament House in Sydney on Friday 17 May. In his speech he argued that Australia needs to put public policy parameters in place in order to use the talent of our ageing population.

‘You know you are getting old when the candles cost more than the cake’ – so quipped Bob Hope.

As more Australians are experiencing that (only) welcome cost of living increase, it is important that we as a society engage in discussion on Productive Ageing.

Global Access Partners are to be congratulated on this initiative and, with one notable exception, the high calibre for the speakers they have been able to chorale – including the Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet with whom I worked in the glory dates – when I was Special Minister of State and Dr Watt was Secretary of Finance. He’s moved up, I’ve moved down into Opposition.

There is a Japanese proverb which tells us ‘the greatest cultural achievement of a society is a contented older generation’.

And on the other side of the globe the Spanish have a proverb: ‘If you would grow old, you must start early’.

Both these injunctions are helpful path markers in our public policy development in ensuring we engage the full benefits of ‘Productive Ageing, A future without Age’.

I suspect a ‘contented older generation’, to pick up on the Japanese proverb, is one where people are as fully engaged as possible in their profession, in their vocation, in their community and family life.

Arbitrary age limits for the young are necessary, although frustrating. Many young people have argued that the right to drive on the road should be based on competency rather than an arbitrary age after which they can apply for a licence.

Whilst I understand their argument and am naturally disinclined to the one size fits all approach, I reluctantly raise the white flag on that one.

But when it comes to ageing the concept of an arbitrary retirement age embeds expectations in the community and in the individual. Expectations that are neither helpful to the individual nor conducive to harnessing the rich resource that our older community possesses.

The arbitrary retirement age basically tells us, with society’s imprimatur, that “I will be 65 soon so I’ll be past it”, or “he or she is coming up to retirement age so…” insert the words of your choice.

We should shed this negative approach to ageing. Rather we should be celebrating that there is no real substitute for life experience.

We often belittle so-called recycled political leaders such as John Howard or Kim Beazley or the new Victorian Premier, Denis Napthine.

I am sure they would all agree they were better leaders next time round.

I for one am in no doubt that if given the privilege after the 14th September, I will be a better Minister than I was last time round.

Life is a learning experience no matter what your vocation. And all things being equal, the benefit of longevity under your belt means greater proficiency, capacity and wisdom.

The concept of productive ageing was brought home to me when I met with the Indian Opposition Leader in January this year.

Mentally alert, quick witted, excellent recall and physically robust he would not be in Australian politics. Why? Because he is 85 years old.

Closer to home we have two excellent barristers, both former Attorneys General – Hon Tom Hughes QC and Hon Bob Ellicott QC. Well into their eighties, they are still sought out for advice.

Yet, under our Constitution they could not be serving on the High Court because there is a compulsory retirement age of 70.

Australian society at large is the loser from this mind set.

There is no real substitute for graduating in the University of Life Experience.

Our aged pension entitlements were set in times where life expectancy was a lot lower than it is today. We are gradually lifting the age qualification, one suspects mainly because of budgetary pressures. Public policy, whilst appropriately looking at the budgetary implications, has failed to deal with the benefits on the other side of the ledger.

So, as our ability to live longer has changed, our way of thinking has to change. No longer can we be so solely caught up in budgetary pressure. We need to think outside the box. We need to harness the experience of our older Australians.

It seems our by world standards relatively young society still suffers a cringe factor in recognising the wisdom brought by age and the tempering of the human spirit by real life experience.

The social data on the positive aspects of having a person gainfully employed in a household are overwhelming – from physical and mental health to self-esteem for the individual.

For society at large a tax taker becomes a tax payer. Personal benefits and community benefits abound.

So, it’s a win for the individual. It’s a win for the community.

Gainful employment and engagement ticks all the boxes to drive public policy in favour of finding gainful employment for its citizens.

The self-esteem and the physical and mental health of individuals are still enhanced and their contribution to society at large will also be of benefit irrespective of age.

But why should all this stop at some arbitrary magical age? Whilst I don’t often resort to the language of “discrimination”, because of the entitlement and victim mentality it tends to foster, can I say we are foolishly discriminating against our more senior fellow Australians to our detriment as a nation and to the detriment of our senior fellow Australians.

To harness these societal benefits from older Australians and assist the quality of life for individuals our public policy formulation needs to be more flexible in areas of hours worked, workers compensation and insurance.

Labor in its Fair Work Act established an Individual Flexibility Arrangement regime. It was designed to help individuals get a work/life balance which suits both employer and employee as part of their award or enterprise agreement leaving the employee better off overall.

Regrettably the use of this arrangement has been deliberately stifled. The Coalition seeks to liberate and free up the arrangements to make them more available. These are arrangements that would suit older Australians in particular.

I look forward to the ACTU and Mr Shorten acknowledging the social, economic and personal benefits of making IFA’s more workable, especially for older Australians.

If we could fully harness their inputs it would be better for all.

So I can assure you that it is genuinely refreshing to be invited to address a forum on ageing where the discussion is not about the cost of high care versus low care or whether domestic in-house help is more beneficial or what the issues are in relation to dementia or incontinence.

Now don’t get me wrong, it is absolutely vital that our society shows its support for those for whom the ageing process is more difficult.

It is a hallmark of civilised society that we care for the elderly. But let’s lift our horizons. Let’s not just care – let’s also free them up, not just allow but actually encourage their full involvement in all aspects of our community.

But I must admit that the vast majority of discussion, indeed the overwhelming degree of discussion, has been concentrated in this area of what is referred to as aged care – a genuine area of need but dealing with only 0.52% of the population.

The vast majority of us get to face our Maker without needing a stay in His ‘waiting rooms’.

Public policy debate has rightly concentrated on the 0.52% in aged care facilities. However, we should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

So, whilst looking after our most vulnerable it should not stop us engaging in the public policy debate of how to utilise and harness this wonderful resource.

The recent “Living Longer Living Better” package of five bills is an example of this policy approach. All five bills concentrated on the aged care facility sector.

Today 9% of our population is aged 70 years or over. In eight years this will be 13% and (by the time I reach 70) in 2051 (believe that and you will believe anything) the percentage is anticipated to be 20%.

In 2007, we had six people of so-called ‘working age’ for every person over 67.

By 2047 this will be almost halved to 3.2 from the previous six.

With these statistics our bean counters, and let me assure you they play a vital and valuable role, have highlighted the funding challenges of the future.

Poor’s Rating Services has predicted spending on health, aged care and pensions in Australia will represent 14.4% of GDP by 2050. It is currently 9.6%.

Public policy needs to address these trends – but not by wholly or largely concentrating on the tax taking side with its obligatory hand wringing.

What we need is more conferences like this – celebrating the possibilities that are coming our way individually, as a society, and an economy by harnessing the untapped potential of our ageing sector.

The energy and the economic benefits of our ageing population need to be fully prospected and mined. The royalties will pay us all handsomely into the future.

This is a mining boom which won’t bust any time soon. And we’ll actually be able to budget and rely on the benefits for years to come. And I fear we are under-estimating rather than over-estimating the potential of this boom.

In short, we need to celebrate and be thankful that we are living longer by harnessing the inherent talent of our ageing population by opening up opportunities in all areas – especially employment.

Back to the Spanish proverb ‘if you would grow old you must start early’.

That is the challenge for public policy. That is the challenge for me, for Dr Watt, the Hon Susan Ryan, for our Prime Minister and the alternate Prime Minister.

Someone who genuinely gets it is the Aged Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan who will be addressing you later. Suffice to say in a recent interview with Liz Hobday the Commissioner rightly observed “let’s not have policies that reflected what happened 100 years ago when most people were dead before they were 65; let’s look at today’s reality”.

I am not sure we have necessarily started as early as the Spanish proverb urges, but the earlier we get started in getting our public policy parameters in place, the more able we will be as a society to age – age productively for the individual, the family, the community and the economy.

I wish you a successful conference and look forward to reading the contributions of following speakers.

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Senator Eric Abetz

Senator Eric Abetz is the Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Liberal Senator for Tasmania and Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.