Looking after our ageing population

ACT Humanist Society Meetup April 24 2018

Topic – Looking after our ageing population

How can we make sure that people are able to live the best life they can in their declining years?

Can younger people support the growing number of elderly people in society?

At the ripe old age of 66 this is a topic dear to my heart.  In some ways I think I am declining, in some ways I think I am improving and in some ways I feel I am the same person I have always been but with a more wrinkly skin.  You know, as long as you don’t look in the mirror you can still feel young. It is a question of attitude. I feel I am the fittest I have been for years. Giving up a stressful job and no longer having to juggle all the tasks involved in going to work has done wonders for my health.   Of course, there is no denying that I am wearing out and that I am on the downhill slope towards death. However, I feel my fantastically healthy diet, the five exercise classes I do each week at my retirement village, the long walks both outside and on the treadmill and the weekly vigorous dose of Scottish Country Dancing will keep me going full steam ahead for a while.  Eighty is the old sixty after all. Mind you, like all my peers, I am madly doing cryptic crosswords, sudoku and any puzzles I can lay my hands on to try and stave off dementia.

One of the first points I would like to make is that young people do not have to look after the ageing population all on their own.   Very young people are looked after by their parents and many young people live at home well after they have left school and are helped by their parents.  This dependency lasts longer now than in the past as young people undertaker further education and often don’t find permanent work for a while after graduating.  Middle aged people contribute more in terms of taxes to support older people because of their greater earning capacity. In late middle age people may find themselves doing a lot to support to their parents because their parents are living into their eighties and beyond.   And of course, many older people look after themselves; they have planned for their retirement, they have superannuation and they live in their own homes. Fundamentally, older people value their independence and most don’t willingly want to be a burden on anyone.

Secondly, the present cohort of elderly people worked and paid taxes when younger which helped to support past generations of older people.  So, it is nothing new that the younger generation supports the older generation. What is different is that the proportion of younger people to older people has changed due to older people living longer, the ageing of the baby boomers, and a lower birth rate.  These are not bad things in themselves but they may be problematic for the younger generation, perhaps.

Of course, if you think of older people as dependent and declining you are likely to see them as a burden but in fact, many older people contribute a lot to society.  Older people make an economic contribution to society by paying taxes on their earnings, spending their disposable income and passing on wealth to the younger generation.  Older people often save their families considerable amounts of money by acting as child carers. This seems to be a full-time job for many of them. Furthermore, older people are great volunteers, helping out a diverse range of organisations and people.  They have the time to give back to society.

Just because we are old doesn’t mean we are brain dead, uninterested in politics or couch potatoes.  Many older people take courses in the University of the Third Age, have a wide circle of friends and interests, some even attend demonstrations and become vexatious letter writers.  The assistance given to older people, their own knowledge of what they need to do to stay healthy and with it, means that a lot of people are really enjoying their old age.  And of course, older people have a life time of experience which younger people can mine if they are so inclined.  

It can’t be denied that there is an economic cost in providing services to old people.  For example, health care costs are high for very old people, but they are also high for treating people with cancer, or providing organ transplants, treating accidents and sporting injuries and saving very premature babies.  Society has to decide how much it should spend on the health budget and how it should be allocated. Old age pensions do cost the tax payer money as do other social benefits such as youth allowance and disability allowances. I can’t see how any of these costs can be cut because people who rely solely on a pension are living on the verge of poverty as it is.  Beyond taking the Soylent Green option (although I am happy to see voluntary euthanasia legalised – much better than having to leap off my balcony when I discover that I have some nasty incurable disease) what can be done?

One option is to reduce the costs to the public purse of providing services and support for older people.  Already the age that older people can access the old age pension has been raised. For some people, compulsory retirement was unwelcome as they felt they had many productive years ahead of them.  There is no doubt that retirement for some people means the end of a useful life and boredom and emptiness. For others retirement is welcome, a rest from decades of toil and a time to take up pursuits that were not possible before.  In fact, many older people are so busy they wonder how they had the time to work. But along with raising the retirement age it is important to make sure that there are real and meaningful work options available to older people and that there is also a change in attitude towards the capabilities of older people.  You are not past your use by date simply because you reach retirement age.

Many more people have superannuation now so that should reduce the number of people on the old age pension.  However, for many ordinary people managing superannuation is not easy, especially as people can have many jobs in a lifetime.  Furthermore, superannuation can be whittled away by high fees and risky investments. A government superannuation scheme where the sole aim of the scheme is to make sure that people have a good income to support them when they retire could address this issue.  People could always opt for a private scheme if they wished.

Programs that help prevent or at least delay the sort of ailments that result in older people needing a high level of care will pay for themselves in the long run and greatly increase the quality of life for older people.  Aerobic exercise classes, weights and resistance classes, yoga, Tai Chi, balance exercises, advice on healthy eating, participation in games of all sorts, the provision of social activities, all help to keep people active. The provision of support services in the home also reduce the number of people who need intensive care in hostels, nursing homes and hospitals.  Retirement villages provide all these sorts of services but need to be well regulated and affordable. Comprehensive and affordable health insurance is also a necessity.

Another option is to change the tax system.  We could abolish income tax altogether and largely rely on a goods and services tax to raise revenue.  In this way, those who consume a lot pay the most tax. We could pay every adult a benefit – enough to live on, albeit frugally.  Sounds an outrageous idea but it could have some very major benefits. For example, the administrative savings would be huge; there would be no stigma associated with receiving social security benefits; it would provide so many options for people – they could use the benefit to pay for childcare, take time off to study, use it to help establish a business, start a new career, spend time volunteering, to support creative endeavours and to provide a basic income after retirement.  What a flourishing society such an approach would produce. It would require a big change of attitude, work would have to be seen as a privilege and the taxes paid by working people as their contribution to social capital.

A third option is to just pay higher taxes and make sure everyone, including corporations, pay their fair share.  These taxes could be used to ensure that everybody is able to have the best possible life including access to excellent education, healthcare, accommodation and social security.  If happiness is the goal of our society then we could learn a lot from the Scandinavian countries which consistently rank highly in the happiness stakes but pay fairly high tax. We may have to tighten our belts a bit to afford to pay higher taxes, maybe have more modest houses, fewer possessions, waste less, consume less.  Over the past 60 years Australian homes have more than doubled in size, going from 100 square metres in 1950 to about over 240 square metres 2013.    By comparison, Denmark, frequently the happiest country in the world, had houses sizes of 137 square metres.  We are second only to America in terms of house sizes. Of course, fewer people are living in these bigger houses than in the past.  Reducing our insatiable consumerism would make it easier to help those in need as well as helping the environment and producing a fairer society.  If higher taxes, wisely spent, mean that people don’t have to beg in the streets, live under bridges, live in poverty or go without medical treatment, then I am happy to pay them.

Photo by Jaddy Liu on Unsplash