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Intergenerational Report 2021 … same old, same old – opinion

There’s nothing intergenerational about the Intergenerational Report 2021 (IGR). In fact, it seems to pitch generations against one another. If we’re over 65 we’re dependent and have to be looked after, if we’re under 65 we’re not productive enough, have to live harder and pay down the debt of previous generations.

We had hoped that this IGR would pick up on the recommendations of the Royal Commission and be a springboard for an entirely new conversation about contribution, productivity and life quality of older Australians. Instead, we got a solid reinforcement of old stereotypes.

The economic future of Australia is driven by population, participation and productivity, we’re told. We’re in trouble because population growth of younger people will have less input from migration, participation drops as proportionately more people 'retire', and productivity gains plateau at 1.2 per cent pa with the IGR stating we need 1.5 per cent, but without much strategy for getting there.

For the IGR to be useful in driving the future of a productive Australia, it must include all actual and potential contributions to productivity, not just those coming from younger people in commercial enterprises.

And why wouldn’t you start by looking to the 20 per cent of Australians over 65 (or even those over 50 and out of work) who are bursting to live more productive lives? Well because we have a narrow, bloke's view of productivity (you have to make something and sell it for money), and because businesses would rather be less profitable than include older people in their workforces.

Many older people want to work but are “locked out” of employment because they don’t have the skills and health to work, or are perceived to not have them. The IGR tells us that over the forecast period this gets worse as proportionately less older people will derive an income from effort. The IGR also tells us that older employees already get way less training, so no wonder they don’t have the skills. And there’s nothing that talks about recent research showing that including older people in workforces increases productivity and profitability.

It was good to see the Grattan Institute calling for lowering barriers to work-participation as one of its three responses to the IGR data. Lowering barriers to participation for older workers will need some muscle, with 70 per cent of employers admitting to breaking the law in discriminating against older job applicants, and employers ignoring the research that shows the benefits of including older workers. It looks like employers simply don’t like older people. So, we may need to consider incentives and quotas, as well as anti-discrimination campaigns and laws.

Older Australians are disproportionately setting up their own businesses. In part because no-one will offer them a job, and in part because they value the 'business-lifestyle' this offers, after a lifetime of nose to the grindstone. With the productivity gains here off the chart, why wouldn’t the IGR have moved in the direction of growing this? But what about non-commercially derived productivity?

Older people are already, and likely to be increasingly, disproportionate contributors to this. Where goods and services are supplied voluntarily, where others are supported so they can be productive, where innovation and invention is done at no cost, where riskier enterprises are given a run, where social enterprise is valued, where capital is employed with less expectation of financial return on investment.

This is already a reality, so why wouldn’t we want the IGR to acknowledge it, grow it, count it, understand its unique benefits, and see and develop older people as the edgy drivers of it?

Possibly the biggest learning coming out of the IGR is that we are going to have to invest in older people if we want them to be more productive, just as we do in younger people (the IGR only talks about caring for them). Investments in their good health (the IGR only talks about the rising cost of sick and frail older people), in their learning and skills training, in whatever it is they need to be productive (housing, technology), in ways that encourage productivity while on a guaranteed minimum income (rather that incentivising non-productivity to get it), in supporting the personal growth of older people in the face of unrelenting ageism, in changing the narrative about this emerging life-stage that seems to be displacing retirement.

The very recent survey information coming from National Seniors, COTA, GAP and Every Age Counts all indicates that older people want to be relevant and make a contribution. And the National Seniors survey shows they want to co-invent this with the Australian community, not have it thrust on them as we saw with the proposed increase in retirement age. We do need a whole new community conversation about this. We need a government prepared to curate this conversation.
And we don’t need an IGR like the one we just got.

Mike Rungie specialises in the intersection between good lives and aged care. He is a member of a number of boards and committees including ACFA, Every Age Counts, Global Centre for Modern Ageing and GAP Productive Ageing Committee.

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