The Australian government is asleep at the wheel in planning to meet the greatest generational revolution of all time — our rapidly ageing population. It is mind-boggling that we do not have a minister for ageing, and the government has sacked its Advisory Panel on Ageing (and me as its chairman) in an act of sheer vandalism.
But what should the government be doing to manage the greying of Australia and turn it into a positive? Here are five suggestions.
At least a million of Australia’s retirees would like to stay in the workforce — or return to it — for a variety of reasons, such as the need to earn more money, contribute extra to their super funds, pay school fees for grandchildren, keep the brain active, etc. But absolute and unjustifiable discrimination by employers stops them in their tracks.
We can fix this by legislating that 10% of employees of any company employing more than 10 people must be older workers. This sounds like a regimentation of the workplace, but it is the only way that employers will face the fact that older workers are not over the hill and are needed if our economy is the remain prosperous. Indeed, they are reliable, loyal, trustworthy and experienced. They are profit generators and cost reducers for those who give them a fair go, as they are highly unlikely to look for another job. This tough initiative will produce the benefit of adding billions to the economy every year.
A second problem with Australia’s ageing population is spiraling healthcare costs. Far too many seniors spend too much time visiting doctors and staying in hospitals. Most times they have no need to go, but they were bored, needed an outing and just want company. Many routine medical issues can be handled by qualified nurses, often online, at a huge saving in cost to Medicare.
Lifelong learning can be a huge income generator for universities and TAFE colleges, as many seniors were denied the chance to get a degree or diploma in their younger days. Many now want to reverse that lost opportunity and are willing to pay the costs of study to get a degree, even in their 90s. Some want to qualify for a profession. Others just want to prove they can do it and look for study courses that broaden their minds in a subject of interest.
Recreation is also an open door to the creation of a new service industry for older people. Every day, thousands of seniors go on bus trips, often travelling to the same places. They get little exercise, sitting on buses for hours, and there is little educational content in the excursion. Professionals who can create new forms of innovative and interesting recreation can make a fortune, particularly young people who can bridge the intergenerational gap.
Lastly, housing presents opportunities to capitalise on the swelling ranks of Australia’s senior citizens, as age-friendly housing is almost non-existent in Australia. We build small houses for older people, but they lack features to help those with arthritis and heart conditions, etc, while almost totally ignoring technology. The property industry is losing vast quantities of profit because they do not recognise that the world is ageing and needs new specialist housing in its millions.
There are many more opportunities than the five I have mentioned above that await the valiant out there in the greying world, e.g., volunteering, particularly where seniors can use their skills rather than making the coffee and driving cars; a revolution in the way we grow and manage retirement incomes; and investing in rural communities.
All of these will be outlined in policy form in the upcoming “Blueprint on Ageing”, on which I am working with progressive Australian think tank Per Capita. It will be ready in June 2014, and you can register your support and interest on the Per Capita website.
After doing that, go to see your local federal MP and ask him or her to recognise that ageing is expanding challenge of living and is not going away. It will be either an economic and social disaster or a time of great prosperity and high quality of life. It’s time for politicians to decide whether they are part of the problem or the solution.
The vital issue is that we must move on it now and make some sound decisions that will initially be unpopular but will prove to be long-term triumphs.
*Everald Compton was a founding director of National Seniors Australia in 1976 and was its chairman from 1986 to 2011