Jim Chalmers’ value-added capitalism requires upheaval of old age paradigm

Feb 18, 2023
Doing paperwork, savings, paying domestic bills, mortgage loan, pension at home using laptop.

Treasury, along with all economic institutions, must replace their ageist definitions and assumptions about older people and become part of the solution, not the assault.

Quelle surprise! We finally have a Treasurer who is an independent thinker, and more surprisingly he is thinking out loud. Jim Chalmers is rethinking capitalism to restore some basic values. But the frenzied reaction of economic journalists illustrates how hard it will be for Chalmers to shift the stubborn neo-liberal ideas of the economic establishment towards ‘a new, values-based capitalism for Australia’, within a new ‘wellbeing’ framework where ‘our private markets create public value’. Such an ambitious plan will require new thinking across society’s entire spectrum.

For a start, rethinking the ageing paradigm and drawing on the social capital of ‘the old’ will be key to that ‘social purpose economy’. Prime Minister Albanese is 59, Penny Wong is 54. They will soon find themselves described as ‘older’ Australians. For good reason we regard that term ominously. It brings all kinds of prejudice. If they were applying as unknowns for a job based on age alone, most HR leaders across the country would assign their applications to a junk file.

We need to stop the demographic doom-saying about the old as a future burden on the economy and develop this group as a valuable resource, upending public policy thinking about the whole ageing process. The real issues of old age have been obscured by recent governments in a welter of panic-thinking with the marketisation/privatisation/exploitation of old age care.

Who are these ‘old’ people? And what do they do? Discrimination certainly begins after 50. It becomes difficult to change or acquire a job. Business leaders and HR managers are responsible for much of the wastage of experienced talent in our country. We talk about ‘retirement’ as being eligible for a pension at age 65 (or 67), that is when we officially become an ‘economic burden for the State’. This marker was introduced in 1909 when it was expected few would live to reach that age.

Today through better medical care and the transformation of work, at age 65, we can expect to live another active and healthy 20-23 years, not ‘dependent’ on anyone, least of all on the federal budget as a burden.

But the age of 65 has remained the marker for transition and a time to be sidelined, from the community. Not wanted in the work force, we seek or are assigned tasks, but they carry no economic value. Heartless capitalism defines us as irrelevant but sells us a retirement dream where we can laze about, smile until the sun goes down or play pickle ball and put on a funny hat. Ultimately some of us will end our days in under resourced, for-profit ‘homes’, eating deplorable food and commonly abused and neglected. The message we get is: ’We don’t want you and you are useless’. It gets louder and clearer as the years go by.

We are told to sell down, get out of our houses. Some of us move to live in retirement villages which become ghettos, (you don’t see children playing in the street), or live in isolation from the community struggling to contribute and survive, but encountering obstacles in our way. We don’t understand the knowledge economy and we despair trying to master technical skills so necessary to all aspects of life today- shopping, banking, paying bills, subscribing to entertainment, going to see the doctor or enter a hospital for treatment. All incur panic because the processes are impenetrable and most of us are ill-equipped to deal with the complicated barriers.

The fact is we do want to contribute, we do want our lives to have purpose.

Today, our life expectancy in Australia is 85.3 for men, 88.0 for women, with an increasing number of those years (9 or more) disability-free. Many Aussies now understand they need to finance those extra years to live a comfortable life and find something to do to satisfy their minds. Only one in every five over age 65 is saying they intend to retire from work. Most people are realising that superannuation and/or pension payments will not be enough to live well, through the second half of a longer life.

Most of us are not old until the eighties, when bodily wear and tear is taking its toll and the diseases of old age (arthritis, asthma, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, strokes, mental health deterioration) kick in. Look closely at the Census figures and you will find only 68,200 (0.5%) are over the age of 85, rising to just 528,000 in 2066. Half of those classified as ‘older’ were in the age bracket 65-74, a fifth of them still engaged in productive employment and busy with family care and voluntary work in the community. Only 3 in every 10 are aged 75-84, and 1 in 8 are over 85. It should be clear the so-called ‘old’ are a resource, mostly willing to work and contribute to society in diverse ways,

The Treasurer sees our ‘aged care crisis’ as part of ‘an old mental model’ which needs to change. But he does still refer to the ‘the budget pressures brought by ageing’, reinforcing what we are so used to hearing. We submit, the Treasurer, as part of his plan, should be congratulating us on reaching an age where experience is valued, insisting employers should drop ageist attitudes to encourage ongoing workforce participation, demand Higher education reform to focus on retraining and tailored courses for those in their 50’s and older to upgrade their skills; to define education as a lifelong process. Include the aged living actively in the community.

There is no logic behind a fixed retirement age.  For those who can, and those who wish to work, we need new ways of thinking about work – greater flexibility in the number of hours worked, working from home, shared jobs, a system that allows for time out when necessary, and recognition abilities change over a working lifetime and retraining must be ongoing. As the Millennials move into old age, employers can no longer assume they lack technological/computer know-how. They are the first of the new digital age, and they know what is required. Already, the Census shows that 40% of those Millennials are attending TAFE programs, despite repeated governmental neglect of the system in recent decades.

The main thing for those who are physically or mentally unable to work at any age, is to be able to access appropriate care. And here too, policy thinking is out of touch. Three-quarters of those over the age of 85 still live in a private house with a spare bedroom, but the Census does not tell us who may be using those spare bedrooms from time to time (such as divorced offspring, home-share students, or grandchildren). Instead, the usual policy and media beat-up cries foul at these ‘selfish oldies’ denying housing access to younger generations.

In short, Treasury, along with all economic institutions, must replace their ageist definitions and assumptions about older people and become part of the solution, not the assault. Chalmers and Albanese are attempting to break new ground which must encompass our greater longevity instead of treating ageing as a future burden. There are models to explore in Denmark and in Canada’s new Master Plan for Ageing. Policies on work, education, housing, health, and aged care should work in unison and recognise the value that older people, along with all age groups can offer to both the economy and inclusive community life. It may then be possible to build the better, uniquely Australian capitalism, Treasurer Jim Chalmers is aspiring towards.

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