The Real Issue Facing Australia Does Not Come By Boat

Dear Readers,

As the vicious political bun fight over asylum seekers arriving in boats continues in Canberra, I was reminded recently of the real population issue facing Australia.

We are not being overrun by boat people or terrorists or any other bogeymen that the media and pollies try to scare us with. We are in fact  being overwhelmed by the aged. We are not having enough children and we are living longer than ever before. While longer life with fewer mouths to feed are pluses for present generations, these factors spell doom for Australia’s long term economic future.

A year or two ago, the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was criticized for championing the concept of a “Big Australia” with a population of 50 million or more.   There is in fact no alternative to a Big Australia if we are continue to balance the books. Without greater numbers of people, our taxes are set to skyrocket.

Consider these facts:

1. There are presently more than 3000 people aged 100 years or more .

2. By 2050, there will be 50 000 people aged 100 years or more.

3. By 2050, there will be more Australians in retirement than active in the workforce.

No-one in the present policy debate has explained how we will pay for the costs of this ageing population. Instead, they focus on scoring points with each other about who can stop the boats. And this while a demographic tsunami looms on the horizon.

It’s my intention to produce a series of works in print, television and radio on this question. It’s easy for younger people to ask: ‘well how does this affect me?’. But it’s the young of today who will deal with this problem.

I’d like people to share their thoughts here on the topic. I’d like to use those ideas and debate as a starting point for my research. I’d like to hear from people who have narratives that demonstrate the numbers in action. Every family will deal with this question in one form or another.

Every discussion I have throws up some new facets of the issue. For instance, one friend lamented that the mix of conservatism and liberalism is out of balance. An older society is naturally a more risk averse society. A healthy country has a mix of caution and recklessness, this balance fires entrepreneurship and risk-taking.

Australia is a lucky country, we are poised on the verge of greatness as the Age of China rolls on.  However, can an ageing Australia really achieve its potential? We are faced with the choice of making lots of babies or addressing the role of the elderly in the economy and society. Otherwise we won’t be building any schools, just nursing homes.

10 thoughts on “The Real Issue Facing Australia Does Not Come By Boat

  1. Your comments hit the nail right on the head Adam.
    The ageing challenge that faces the entire world cannot be ignored.
    They do however offer a great economic opportunity to innovative investors wo recognise that there is a new market of at least five million seniors out there right now in Australia alone that needs special products and services that are quite different to the younger market. Everald Compton

  2. I couldn’t agree more, Adam. Let the boat people come in droves. They will have the children who are needed to pay the taxes of the future to maintain a decent standard of living in this country. Government schools are already run down. The one I work in is quite exceptional in the district but the staff rooms are straight out of 1971. They are overcrowded and there is nowhere to store any of the documents that need to be kept for 21st century learning or legal purposes, despite that we are said to be living in a paperless society. Traditional education of the few in the future will all be private and only for those who value it and can afford to pay. The rest will be offered something online, no doubt, but who knows what and from where it might be delivered? And what of the children at school these days? What is their future? My observations have led me to believe that a lot of them have been spoiled by good economic times. How are they to cope in the future when their citizenship requires them to work under the harsh conditions of the future where they will pay even bigger taxes than us?

    There are a whole heap of baby boomers who haven’t prepared adequately for retirement; particularly women who didn’t start superannuation early enough in their lives to cover their constantly rising life expectancy. I am not proud to say that I am one of them because I didn’t listen to the need to worry about superannuation until Paul Keating put it out there in the 80s. By then, I had missed many years of saving opportunities. I should also say that up until that time it was the News Ltd policy not to offer super to females until they had worked there for five years; whereas males were offered it from the moment they joined the company. Another five years I wasted that just can’t be caught up because of stupid thought in society and government at the time about what women were capable of achieving in a lifetime.

    I feel somewhat selfish to be worried about my own future in a world that is in turmoil, but I realise that I have to worry about it because the idea that the government will take care of me in my old age is now an idea of the past. I just wish I had’ve listened to my parents and that the government had’ve given me warning. There are so many related issues relevant to old age now that are rarely discussed. Affordable housing for single people (and most people end up that way in old age) and the state of nursing homes, let alone the trained people to staff them, is a good place to start before it reaches a state of crisis in another 10-15 years. Although I would like to see us move away from the corporate nursing home model so that everyone is entitled to equalty of treatment, I know several people my age who are already thinking they would rather suicide or live on the street as a way of maintaining some dignity that isn’t offered in many of the degrading nursing homes around.

    Donald Horne gave up on the “Lucky Country” idea nearly 25 years ago, but it would be amazing to know how many people here are still relying upon luck to see them through. I see them in my classroom every day. I have also met their parents, who are still talking about being “down on their luck”. It seems to me there needs to be a change in our whole way of thinking in this country. I try to be optimistic that something will change, but with the majority of people being led by media events that seem almost xenophobic, I am sceptical that much can be done.

    • “I should also say that up until that time it was the News Ltd policy not to offer super to females until they had worked there for five years; whereas males were offered it from the moment they joined the company. Another five years I wasted that just can’t be caught up because of stupid thought in society and government at the time about what women were capable of achieving in a lifetime.”

      Isn’t that just scandalous that you were treated as somehow different to the men. At least super is now universal and gives us some chance of funding retirement but who of our generation could afford to live to 100 and more??.

      • Yes, quite scandalous, Adam, but I guess you understand that is part of life when you are “working for Rupert” (to quote Hugh Lunn’s book title). That was News Limited of 1978. I joined the scheme when they finally offered it to me, but I also cashed it out when I left in 1988 because I wasn’t clued in about roll overs and all that. The real joke is that I only got about $2000 from it after five years anyway. I put in the bank on fixed interest because Piers Lort-Phillips told me that’s what I should do! Maybe I should’ve been more selective about my financial adviser, LOL?!! Not to worry: I’m not expecting to live much beyond 65 anyway. I’m currently doing a Grad Dip in Information Management in the hope I can ride out my so-called retirement in an invisible way with other old people in a library somewhere. I am already on a cocktail of drugs, as a result of my past hedonistic lifestyle, but at least I pay full price for those now, so I’m helping the overpriced pharmaceutical industry along, and I’m in a private health fund so I won’t be too much of a burden on the government, if I can keep working to the death, literally! The scary thing for the country, though, is that I am probably fairly typical of a lot of working-class baby boomers. We thought we could have our cake and eat it, too. At least I have some education (now paid for in full) to fall back on, though. A lot of my friends have absolutely nothing at all.

  3. It’s definitely a biggie, Adam – typical of you!!
    It’s easy to get panicky about the ageing population as you start to look closely at the figures and the infrastructure burdens they imply. The immigration debate surely features, as it always has. The stability and modest growth of our population remains dependent on immigration since the mid-1970s.

    It’s also important to remember that this infrastructure burden has been labouring in child birth for many years; chronic shortfalls in education, health, employment – all as a result of the boomer generation as it progressed from infancy to adulthood. Uni fees were introduced when I was in Year 10. There are also numerous commentators who blame the Boomers for the over priced housing market.

    Even if it is “all their fault”, I would say it’s more the culture of that generation than the people themselves: the Boomers aren’t accurately defined as “a typical, post-war baby boom”. They are more defined as a demographic by the abrupt end to breeding, which is more feasibly a result of popularised contraception practices. This is what sets apart modern western societies from poorer nations: the poor have disease, poverty and food shortages, while we have pills and rubbers to control population growth.

    Wartime in its many current instances doesn’t really rank in comparison to previous generations: the world is much smaller now and conflicts have tended to remain contained in regional hotspots, for fear of invloving superpowers and their sophisticated weaponry. Meanwhile booming transportation systems created a huge supply of moving masses like Mexicans, Serbs, Lebanese, Vietnamese and now Iraqis, Afghans, Africans and Russians.

    Added to this “Boomer” era is technology and communications that, when turned back on itself, can manufacture with more efficiency and distribute more effectively the very cheap, compelling devices of inter-communication across the globe.

    Countries like Australia, Germany, the US are promoting themselves as wealthy and abundant to every corner of the planet, like beacons of hope for countless millions of displaced in every language imaginable.

    The higher truth is that natural, profound corrections to over-population have always featured in history, pre-history and beyond. But education, infrastructure, diplomacy and communications has enabled unprecedented population growth and a deeper understanding of the resource-consumption equation on a global scale.

    The older hopes like space colonization continue to be explored in fiction, but the reality has fallen far short of solving a planetary over-supply of human behings. The assumption that “development” can continue forever, based on population growth and technological breakthroughs in resource management and discovery, has often been challenged but rarely heeded.

    As the pressure mounts, the more “traditional” systems of population control, seen in Yugoslavia and more recently again in Africa, are likely to flourish. Our economic and military dominance may now have found a conscience in Libya, refined by the many earlier attempts such as Timor and Somalia, but one wonders if this newfound sense of international responsibility is anything more than self-interested.

    After all, a harmonious world will surely emerge from a more stable population, and yet that’s what Australia has been fighting most: zero population growth.

    What began with a tiny tablet in the 1960’s was perhaps the answer to the age-old problem of “populate and dominate”, a problem China was most grappling with at that time. For the most part, China took responsibility for the problem it created, though we didn’t really approve of the “one-child” policy.

    Our self-interest continues to propose “interventions” which will enable democracy, peace and “growth”. But really, we just want to continue to contain the problems where they start, preventing them from spilling over onto highways and high seas.

    The culture inherited by the Boomers in this country led to the lowest rate of philanthropy in the Western world, the most comfortable and extravagant medical system, and an education which barely ventures beyond English in its effective population literacy. All Swedes speak three languages, and yet their system is less than half the size of ours.

    Oh we have our wealth, we have our education, we have our health care, but did we ever learn to share? Like spoilt children we’re now afraid of Muslims taking away our ice creams, so we lock them up for years on remote islands, without even teaching them English.

    Australia is not an English country, it is an Asian country. We may not like some of China’s decisions, but sure as hell can learn from them. Exactly how did China deal with their aged population, once the single-child policy kicked in, anyway?

    Yes, we need the people. And Yes, most of the boaties are probably very good people. How do we manage that? Perhaps by learning more about our neighbours, rather than threatening to cut their aid if we don’t get the political points.

    (Ok, this is a bit quick and not quite thought out, but there’s heaps of stuff there for you, Adam… enjoy!)

  4. Errr. i’m not so sure about this Adam… whereas in the past the wisdom of the elders was revered and sought after, in these times the oldies seem to be relegated to economic burden – their experience and insight mere bedside dribbles and incoherent ravings.

    It is as though there was a grand plan of provision for our loving parents based on elaborate accountancy, but when the actual accountant arrived and did the the math, the true value of our seniors was discounted on the market.

    In suburbs like Doncaster and Springvale, real estate agents know well the need for additional dwellings on the property. Their Asian clients will not take a second glance at a property without consideration for their parents’ needs in the future.

    Have we callously delegated the responsibility for our elders’ welfare to our Governments, religious welfare agencies and future generations? Have we shirked our responsibilities like the bitter single parent who moves back overseas, or fudges tax returns to reduce their child support?

    How much correlation is there between the compulsory system of superannuation and the ponzi-schemes for underpriviledged mortgages in the US?

    The popular analysis of the current world economic crisis harks back to the the “ballooning” calculation system of the US “sub-prime” mortgage market, its bursting bubble, and its consequences on stock markets and investments.

    Can we be sure that Australia’s compulsory superannuation system is untainted by this type of deceptive mathematical artistry? Because if it is not untainted, then what does our ageing population’s finances imply for our overall stock exchange value?

    Decades of careful and astute investment by too many responsible, worthy superannuation planners could leave our free markets open to a future of ongoing volatility and, at best, gradual deflation. And that deflation will need to be corrected by future generations of superannuation investors.

    The propoganda of the day is to argue that oldies can work longer – delay their drawing on their superannuation investements – and so? (reduce how much we need to recalculate payback for future generations)

    In a materialistic world, our math is what governs in the long term – beyond the 3 year cycles of the parliament. Passing the baton from era to era, our politicians will try to shirk the issue of financing the promises made to the ageing Baby Boomers.with many and various feasible plans for finance of their health care, transport and burial. But can the politicians control the confidence of the free market?

    As Australia boasts its superior survival of the world economic crisis, ridiculing the woes of Greece, Ireland and the US on a wave of resource-based revenue, can it continue to hide the fact that its stock market is over valued by its compulsory superannuation system?

    As the Boomers continue to draw on their long-term investments, I’m putting my money on the various Asian examples around me in Melbourne. They don’t trust governments or accountants. They just accept the basic fact of life that once their kids are at Uni, their parents will soon need care.

    (another unedited, poorly structured rant by a dickhead who thinks you might appreciate an extreme perspective on the subject at hand!)


    • I think this is a very interesting perspective, Tim. It fits with a print advertisement I saw for a group called sbsindependent homes. Basically, they sell “pods” that can be assembled on already existing land of a certain size without council approval. These are designed to link into existing plumbing from the main house on the block. The target market for these seemed to be Gen Y who are staying at home longer to save for their McMansions. After reading what you’ve said, I am wondering if the Gen Ys might end up moving into the family home and putting the old people into the pods out the back. I am glad I am not an economist so I don’t have to think about the effect this might have upon the property market.

      • I’m glad you appreciate my little piece of prose for adam – oh – and I’m sorry i put a swearword in the footnote!

        The background is that I believe Australia is an Asian nation, and that there is far more we can learn from our immediate neighbours than we need fear.

        cheers, Tim

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