Who’s really getting screwed?

Just when you thought it was safe to come out of the kitchen after the ‘smashed avo’ beat-up, now more so-called thought leaders are reducing the complex issue of intergenerational equity into a simplistic old versus young war. Sadly, these very vocal proponents of ‘the young are being screwed’ rhetoric are overlooking most of the facts and pumping up a handful of statistics to skew their arguments. The result seems to be a senior bashing exercise of little benefit to either older or younger people in society. I have really had enough of this cheap exercise which is as discriminatory as it is false.

Yes, John Daley, Jessica Irvine and Adam Bandt I’m looking at you.

The current furore started with the release of the Grattan Institute’s report into so-called ‘unfair seniors’ tax breaks’, as reported by Debbie on Monday.

The gist of the report is that older Australians are receiving far more in benefits from the public purse than younger people are. To quote Grattan chief, John Daley, “While they have been dropping out of the tax system and their incomes have been going up materially, the amount the government spends on them has been going through the roof, particularly on health. They are taking a lot more out and putting substantially less in”. This statement has gone unchallenged and been amplified by many media mouths.

But let’s consider what these seniors, who in most cases have paid 40 or 50 years of tax into the public purse, and funded, without complaint, roads, airports, kindergartens, high schools and universities for future generations, continue to contribute today. It’s something our GDP fails to measure, but a research paper by the Australian Institute of Family Studies measured the contribution of unpaid work by those aged 55 and over to be $74 billion. It puts Mr Daley’s suggested $1 billion wind back in tax breaks in context, doesn’t it? Maybe grandparents caring for grandchildren should just go on strike for a day to make the nation sit up and take notice of their contribution for a change?

Next cab off the media rank was Jessica Irvine, senior writer at Fairfax. In a particularly whingey op ed in The Age, titled ‘We pay while you play’ Ms Irvine laid into older people with a vengeance. To quote,

“We’ve watched as you’ve dragged the heft of your demographic bulge through the tax and welfare system, with politicians only too glad to buy your votes. We’ve watched as you were granted rights to sock hundreds of thousands of dollars into your super nest eggs while we were busy paying off university debts you never had”

What planet is this ‘senior’ writer on?

Seriously?

The median superannuation balance on retirement is $95,000. Yes, Jessica, for people entering retirement today that is the median amount they have to fund their next 20 or 30 years. If male, it is higher. If female it is lower. It’s because they have not benefitted from compulsory superannuation for the number of years your generation will. Little wonder then that the fastest growth in homelessness is for females aged 55 and over. These are the facts. So most Australians have not been ‘socking’ hundreds of thousands of anything, anywhere.

Hard on the heels of Mr Daley and Ms Irvine came Greens MP Adam Bandt who let fly in Parliament yesterday with a ‘young people are getting screwed’ speech’. I watched the full 20 minutes on Facebook and as my internet was slow I saw his message delivered very slowly and deliberately. And Adam had nothing to say about any contribution made by older Australians. Nothing at all. Senator Bandt’s flawed logic seemed to echo that of Mr Daley and Ms Irvine:

  • Young people are getting screwed (quote)
  • The old are well off
  • So the plight of younger Australians is the fault of the older people.

It’s a great media grab and a crowd pleaser amongst the many younger people who are feeling disenfranchised.

But this massively simplistic and erroneous approach is akin to the hordes of Americans who voted for Donald Trump because he is going to bring back the jobs in manufacturing.

He can’t, he won’t. And in Australia older people are not screwing younger people.

It’s time to challenge the woeful lack of analysis and start a grown-up debate about who in our society is missing out and what can be done about it.

And to stop supporting an old versus young intergenerational war beat-up because it raises the profile of a think tank, is click bait for a newspaper or a populist slogan for a politician.

The real story about inequity has nothing to do with old versus young.

The real story is the widening gap between rich and poor, measured and documented by global organisations including the OECD and Oxfam and local ones such as ACOSS and the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

The lack of opportunity and access faced by many of us – in education, health care, housing or financial wellbeing – is much more closely aligned to our socio-economic status than to our age. Yes, in certain aspects, different age groups do benefit from various government policies. So superannuation tax breaks can favour older people. But only those with enough money to utilise them!  If you haven’t got an extra $50,000 to put into super this is of no benefit whatsoever. And this is the case for the majority of older people. Overall life course disadvantage is the major ongoing challenge for far too many Australians, old and young.

We know that the deposit on a house represents a greater proportion of annual income than it did 25 years ago. Buying a house is a huge challenge. But the 15 per cent of retirees who do not own their own home and are forced to rent in the same overheated rental market as younger people are doing it just as tough. No $19 margaritas for them, Jessica.

Finding a job is also tough – at any age. Youth unemployment is far too high and the Federal Government’s planned tightening of Newstart allowance conditions is punitive and ridiculously unfair.

But a glance at the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report Willing to Work reveals the experience of those aged 55 and over when they apply for jobs. Endemic age discrimination means their CVs will probably be junked by a bot before they have any chance of being read. Those in this age group will take more than a year to get back in the job market, if ever. Much longer than those in younger age groups.

So instead of bashing up other generations, let’s take a step back and consider the bigger picture. Our financial system is fundamentally flawed. The tax breaks we really need to look at are associated with capital gains and negative gearing. The Australia Institute did the sums on this long ago. We can afford to look after old, young and those in between if we tackle the real inequities in our society. But starting a pop culture generational war is not the way to go about it.

What do you think? Are seniors really screwing the prospects for younger generations? Do Mr Daley, Ms Irvine and Adam Bandt have a case? Or is this generational stoush as unhelpful as Kaye claims?

Written by Kaye Fallick



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