Whose Intergenerational Tragedy?

It is hard to forget the cries of “intergenerational tragedy”  that greeted the latest Intergenerational Report released by Treasurer Jim Chalmers.  The lively reaction to a potential “tragedy” in Australia in 40 years time stands in sharp contrast to the failure to deal with Australia’s present generational tragedy unfolding in real time.

The IGR warned of an ageing population that would put the full and unaffordable burden of work, taxes and care on the young. Fortunately, people like Peter Martin and John Quiggin sought to balance  this “scare mongering”.  They pointed out that it is not only the old who require care, but also children and people with a disability; that living standards, as measured by real GDP per person will be an extraordinary 57% higher in 2042; and that any increase in taxes will be moderate compared to income, an extra 3.9 per cent of GDP in tax, but not the full amount until 2063. 

The problem is not just the alarmist nature of the IGR with regard to the ageing population. It is that the IGR reflects the ageist thinking of governments and society in general. Older generations are seen as a threat to national wellbeing. They are calculated as a national liability and an unbearable burden on future budgets.

Instead of applying this ageist lens, the IGR should have based predictions and plans for the future ageing population on the fundamental question-
“What is the best holistic approach to dealing with an ageing Australia?” Already over a third of Australian women are over 50. So it would be very prudent to ask “How do we stop increasing numbers of them falling off the financial cliff ?”. Had the IGR recognised the magnitude of the current crisis, it could have become the basis for constructive planning for the future.

Women over 40 are the most excluded from workforce

In a country that is short of workers, we are already seeing the wholesale waste of female skills, talent, and professional experience. The Australian population of ‘working age’ isn’t going to start shrinking in the future. For women it begins shrinking when they turn 40. The assumption is that it is women with young children who are excluded from the workforce. But surprisingly, the statistics show that it is in fact women over 40 who are the most excluded. The older women get, the harder it is for them to keep their jobs. And if they lose them, they have little hope of ever returning to the workforce. 

Systemic gendered ageism is squeezing women out of the workforce as they age.

Systemic gendered ageism is depriving the country of a massive reservoir of workplace capability and experience.

Systemic gendered ageism is driving these women into the tragedy of poverty and homelessness. In 2001 most of unemployed were men. Now it’s older women who are the majority on Jobseeker. And if they are the majority on Jobseeker, the distance to homelessness is short. There are more than 300,000 older people, mostly women, already homeless or at risk of homelessness.

This is the predictable path to generational tragedy. 

Addressing generational change

Ageing populations are a worldwide phenomenon, but Australia has jumped the gun by excluding the very people the economy most needs. The list of priority jobs are not heavy lifting jobs and physical labour. Instead, the jobs growth will be highest in service industries and in jobs requiring higher level professional qualifications.  

These are precisely the jobs with the highest female employment. But these jobs are paid half of more ‘male occupied’ jobs. This discrepancy perpetuates the poverty cycle. So if Australia desperately needs more working people, what action is being taken to remove gendered ageist barriers to the employment of women?

Where are the extensive re-skilling programs for older female workers? AHRI & AHRC found in their survey of training and development opportunities, only half the organisations offered them to older workers. This is the lowest rate since this survey began 4 years ago.

The countries that will be the most successful with ‘generational change’ will be the ones that provide the best integration and opportunities for older people. Put that in an Intergenerational Report, Treasurer.

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