In a recent speech to the National Press Club, Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan delivered a speech titled “The Ageing Revolution is not over”.
Below is an excerpt from her address, which in a somewhat belaboured fashion, sums up the confusion of the establishment position on older Australians.
Last time I spoke here, I called my address “the longevity revolution”, and asked, “crisis or opportunity?”.
I intended that question as a challenge but it seems my challenge has not been met. We are as a community, still floundering on the crisis side of the binary. Our approach is still steeped in the language of “burden” and “deficits”. We are still failing to realise the opportunities that longevity can create for us.
Perhaps I was not catastrophic enough in my warnings…not inspirational enough in my ideas…because that was back in 2014, and now two years later, not enough has happened.
As today will be my last chance to address the NPC in this role, I won’t hold back…the crisis has not yet been averted, the opportunities of the ageing revolution still elude us.
Why do I say this?
Because against powerful and persistent economic and workforce data demonstrating great potential gains from increasing workforce participation of older people, and despite growing evidence of the willingness and capacity of Australians to lead longer working lives, we proceed too slowly to dismantle the barriers.
At the same time, we continue to overlook the capacity and desire of people with disability to make economic contributions. This is our loss, and, more importantly theirs.
Underneath all of that bluster about 'challenges' and 'opportunities', Ryan is forced to admit what most of us know to be true: the projections about the future demographic impact of the older generation on our society are colossal. The first giveaway was the use of the word "crisis". Indeed she admits there is little escaping the looming crisis of the cost of social services to older Australians under the current system.
What the commissioner tries to do, is to skip over the facts and the reality of the situation, whilst suggesting that then impending catastrophe is a product of our prejudice and our collective failure to recognise the enormous potentiality latent in to the first generation of beneficiaries of the "longevity revolution".
It is surprising, and worrying however, that so little has been done to mitigate such crises.
We do know what to do:
Recent studies have demonstrated the huge benefits to the economy from employing more older workers.
Yes, you heard that right. The solution is right in front of us: Nan and Pop are going back to work! That'll save us, and help them too! Once again, the 'more capitalism' meme echoes into the halls of Canberra, whilst the bureaucrats of these future schemes feel both the warm glow of knowing that they will be the beneficiaries of the state funding required to implement such as scheme, and the moral high of having promoted another victim class to fight another form of discrimination.
These is little doubt that this 'longevity revolution', being the suicidal combination of low-birth rates and life-extending medical care, has burdened Western societies with social and economic costs not faced by the fecund and family-oriented global south.
Despite the enormous gains in productivity, science and technology over the 20th century, the best our elites (although I use that term loosely) can come up with is to keep people employed in the capitalist economy until their health forces their death or hospitalisation. Not only is this sick and twisted, it is framed by Canberra apparatchiks as a treasure trove just waiting to be unlocked.
The ethical and practical case for keeping old people in their jobs is, shall we say, problematic. In the age of OH&S, it's not hard to imagine insurance premiums soaring, widespread litigation, work-related injuries and a new golden age for gerontologists.
It should be obvious to the ordinary person that over 65s are not clambering to get their old jobs back, whether they were packing shelves or shuffling paper. Not only is there a lack of desire, but the digitisation of most industries have left many older workers virtually unemployable. The idea that we can 're-tool' and 'upskill' older people to become surplus-generating workers is laughable to anyone who has spent any time teaching their parents or grandparents how to use technology.
The charge that 'discrimination' is the barrier that must be dismantled to get the septuagenarians back on the production line is equally fallacious. There is no evidence for widespread age discrimination that is irrational and not related to hiring the best candidate for the job. Even if there were, this should not be any cause for concern.
For society to function, older people need to step aside in order to allow younger people opportunity. Older workers who have failed to generate sufficient surplus throughout the past half-century of economic bull markets currently have recourse to family and the social safety net. Younger workers employed in the low-skilled jobs that the Commissioner has in mind for older Australians typically use these jobs as a stepping-stone to higher pay, enabling family formation and functional participation in society. Older workers are only in a position to consume and take away jobs from younger people trying to build their lives.
The "Millennial" or "Y" generation is tipped to be the first in Western history that will experience lower standards of living than the preceding generation. This coincides with the first generation of older people to live separately from their families, supported by the state (meaning younger workers). This additional two decades of life represents the sale of the future, a farcical death rite of holidays, consumer spending, chronic illness, loneliness, and eventually prolonged death and suffering.
This, alongside race and gender, has become one of the greatest taboos of modern society. The moral authority of old age, traditionally granted as a recognition for social service and wisdom, has been perverted so thoroughly that extended life-support has become a human right. We do not produce enough as a society to be able to afford this poverty-inducing luxury. A brief visit to any middle-of-the-road nursing home is a haunting reminder of what awaits us if we continue to prop up this system.
How can we look at this a different way? How can we properly re-integrate and re-incorporate the older generation into the fabric of society in a way that both cares for them whilst allowing them to contribute? One need only look to the recent past to find examples that don't involve national bankruptcy and medically-extended death.
The cost of childcare could be slashed by having grandparents care for and raise children in the early phase of their post-work lives, as is already the case in many families. The liquidation or bequeathing of their homes and assets could offset the cost of their healthcare and living expenses, as well as provide for the inevitable post-pension environment.
The greatest beneficiaries of the current system are the pharmaceutical industry, the healthcare industry and of course the government bureaucracy. The real contribution that older Australians can make will be to pass on their wisdom and give their time to helping their families.
The real solution to the pain and loneliness of old age is a radical departure from the "me" focused society. The older generation have done their years battling in public, and now they can enjoy the warmth and comfort and love of their families - not sending the country broke for nursing homes, hospitals and pension payments
We are a society and not a group of scattered individuals with rights. The dismantling of the social and medical welfare system is not the breaking of a promise or the non-performance of a contract. It is the restoration of the right and proper role of older Australians as the caretakers, guardians and teachers of future generations.
Conservative commentators rail against government spending, the perverted values of hook-up culture, modern entertainment, youth-rebellion and consumerism but fail to recognise the potential of the older generation to awaken a new era of identity, patriotism and folk wisdom. It is up to us to dismantle these barriers and allow older Australians to be a part of our society again.