27/08/2015 8:55 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

The Hopes And Fears Of Ageing Australians

Four pensioners sat on a park bench eating ice cream, Stratford upon Avon, UK. (Photo By: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
Education Images via Getty Images
Four pensioners sat on a park bench eating ice cream, Stratford upon Avon, UK. (Photo By: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

2011 was a demographic tipping point for Australia -- the generation that had sung "I hope I die before I get old" began to turn 65 and qualify for the age pension. The retirement of the Baby Boomers -- and the ageing of our population -- will have enormous implications for our nation, impacting public policy and politics for years to come.

In my first week as Julia Gillard's Minister for Ageing I was asked by a radio journalist what I was going to do about "the problem of ageing". In my three years in the portfolio, I lost count of the number of times I was asked by journalists about the "problem" or "crisis" of ageing and how we could "fix it".

The public commentary in Australia about ageing focuses heavily on the downside -- the impact on the federal budget and the thinning out of the labour market. Much less commentary focuses on the enormous opportunity presented to millions of Australians who are able to look forward to a healthy, active and fulfilling 'third age', benefiting from the twentieth-century longevity revolution.

It's a terrible pity that such a fortunate country is approaching this period with -- at best -- general ambivalence and -- at worst -- outright hostility. While the retirement of such a large generation presents some significant challenges, there is no nation better placed to meet these challenges than Australia.

We approach the period after 25 years of economic growth and a record of strong public policy, especially on retirement incomes. And economic and population projections suggest that the purchasing power of average Australians will almost double over the coming 40 years.

The more serious challenges that confront us are to ensure that the 25 years or so added to the average Australian's life are good years -- years in which older Australians remain healthy, active, secure and feel valued by the community they helped to build. Unfortunately, we are not as well placed to meet those challenges.

The financial security of older Australians is extremely precarious. The Baby Boomers generally have small superannuation accounts -- half of the female Boomers have less than $30,000 in super. The Boomers also have plummeting rates of outright home ownership, which has traditionally buttressed Australia's very modest age pension.

And Baby Boomers are shocked by the deeply entrenched ageism they confront in workplaces, shops, restaurants and our media and entertainment sectors -- ironically, perhaps, given that the Baby Boomers did more than any other generation to cultivate the cult of youth that has such deep roots in modern society.

As Minister for Ageing I held dozens of forums with thousands of older Australians where they spoke frankly about their hopes and fears. A consistent fear expressed in almost every forum was losing control over the circumstances of our eventual decline and death.

This was perhaps vividly expressed by a man at a forum in Newcastle undoing his shirt to show his "do not resuscitate" tattoo. People at many other forums told me about their tattoos also. It reveals an extraordinary loss of confidence in our treatment of death that as many older Australians seek security in a tattoo parlour.

The Baby Boomers have re-shaped every phase of life in their own image in a profoundly enduring way which has benefited those who came later. I have little doubt that they will do the same with their 'third age'. How the rest of the nation responds to this big shift will have enormous implications for our future.

It's time we paid more attention to that response.


Mark Butler's book Advanced Australia: The Politics of Ageing is available from Melbourne University Press.

Mark Butler's share of the proceeds of the book will be donated to Alzheimer's Australia Hazel Hawke Research and Care Fund.