Time to stop the boomer bashing

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A few years ago I had the privilege of interviewing social psychologist Hugh Mackay. He had just written a book titled What makes us tick? and I had asked him whether baby boomers displayed certain traits.

“They do. And they don’t,” he replied. He then went on to explain the contradictory impulses of individuals and the diverse characteristics of so-called demographic generations, namely gen x, y, z, boomers and the ‘frugals’ who preceded them.

Hugh Mackay is quite possibly one of the old opinion makers of the ‘cultural lockout’, who has so incensed Richard Cooke that he has lost any semblance of logic or objectivity. “Who is Richard Cooke?” you may ask. Richard is an author who wrote the article ‘Boomer supremacy’ for The Monthly – an article, which, as someone who is firmly in the targeted age group, I found quite staggering.

What damage can be done when a single-generational focus wilfully ignores disadvantage for other generations? As if there aren’t enough societal challenges and areas of disadvantage, do we now need to pit younger people against older people to make any progress? I don’t think so. And here is why.

Baby boomers comprise 26 per cent, or 5.5 million, of Australia’s population of 24 million. Born between 1946 and 1964, they cover a spread that is more than a generation – hence the literature often refers to two cohorts: ‘leading edge’ boomers born from 1946–1955 and ‘shadow boomers’, born 1956–1965. As with all other large demographic categories, boomers are a diverse bunch: black, white, rich, poor, male, female, gay and straight. Yes, they do have some common formative experiences, including the Vietnam War, the Women’s Liberation movement, relatively low-cost higher education, times of full employment and times when a full-scale recession meant far lower employment prospects, and inflation spikes featuring interest rates of 18 per cent.

Boomers do not lock step on social policy, nor do they vote as a bloc. They do not, in fact, support the overly generous tax concessions on superannuation, with a solid majority of 66 per cent in a survey taken just before the 2015 Federal Budget, stating removal of these concessions as the number one priority.

Currently aged between 50 and 70, boomers are now moving into retirement. And here is where the s### really will hit the fan for the majority. Far from being an ‘exciting’ time to be an Australian, retirement will herald the start of very straightened circumstances for many boomers. And this is because they too have an uphill battle to retain secure work, find maintain affordable housing and secure a sustainable retirement income.

In February the Brotherhood of St Laurence (BSL) released a research paper entitled ‘Too old to work, too young to retire’. The title perfectly captures the plight of many older jobseekers who are caught in the wastelands between secure employment and an adequately funded retirement. According to the report’s authors, Michael McGann, Dina Bowman, Helen Kimberley and Simon Biggs, almost 250,000 mature-age Australians (aged 45+) are on unemployment benefits, as they will not qualify for an Age Pension before 65 years of age (or some), 67 (for others).

Whilst there are fewer unemployed older workers that younger ones, the time out of work before becoming re-employed is more than 12 months for 70 per cent of these mature age workers. The average time for an older worker to become re-employed is a disheartening 483 days. For all jobseekers, the average is 294 days.

Unsurprisingly, many older workers become discouraged and stop looking. Often age discrimination is the underlying problem, with ‘gendered ageism’ a growing concern, wherein women are considered ‘too old’ at a younger age than their male counterparts.

Or, as one of the BSL report’s authors, Professor Simon Biggs notes, “This research shows that it’s not just younger Australians whose lives are becoming more precarious, older Australians are also increasingly at risk in work, housing and pension insecurity and for many the party isn’t over.

Affordable housing is the second major area of concern for a growing number of older Australians, as more head into retirement carrying a mortgage that will be impossible to pay off on a restricted retirement income.

The Index of Wellbeing for Older Australians (IWOA), jointly authored by the Benevolent Society and The National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM), has found that housing affordability is the single most important factor in determining older people’s welfare. At one level this should hardly come as a surprise, as, with 70 per cent of Australians on a full or part Age Pension in retirement, there is clearly insufficient income to pay off a mortgage as well as regular household expenses.

And the third major pressure on older Australians? Not enough money to pay their bills. As noted above, currently 70 per cent of retirees live on a full or part Age Pension. According to the most recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study of developed nations, Pensions at a Glance 2015, Australia ranks second last out of 33 nations when it comes to social equity, with 36 per cent of Australian pensioners living below the poverty line, defined as half the median household income. The nation which came last was Korea, at 50 per cent, and ranking just ahead of us was Mexico, at 31 per cent. The average number of pensioners living below the poverty line in all countries surveyed by the OECD is 12.6 per cent. We are also the third-meanest nation when it comes to pension outlays, spending a mere 3.5 per cent of our GDP on older people’s welfare, compared with the OECD average of 7.9 per cent. And this from the second nation in the world to introduce a universal Age Pension?

So yes, younger people are victims in a precarious job market with the ‘uberisation’ of many formerly full-time roles. But so are older Australians who thought they might work and pay taxes for 45 years and then retire on an Age Pension. But no, Age Pension age is currently moving to 67, and planned to head to 70 if Liberal policy gets a green light. Tough luck for those who can’t get a job and keep one. Longevity is now starting to look more like a curse than a triumph of medical science.

And yes, younger generations can rightly claim that they are shut out of housing affordability – but so can older people. This is part of the reason why the fastest growing cohort of homeless people is that of women aged 50 and over.

And yes, again, many older Australians probably do wish they had saved more, as they are now carrying all of the risk for their retirement income. Perhaps many also regret the money they spent on their children’s private school education and the open-door policy they maintained to help adult children to save to travel or buy a first home, severely reducing their own retirement income in the process.

So instead of assuming all boomers are avid shock-jock fans who are trying to exclude young people from the good things in life, let’s move from the Sydney-centric discussion of lockouts and consider a nation of 24 million people, of whom a very narrow band (say 20 per cent) currently benefits from legislation that encourages them to use super as an estate-planning tool and negative gearing as taxpayer funded property acquisition strategy. Rather than starting an infantile battle of the generations, let’s talk instead about the other 80 per cent who do not get a fair go. The target should never be another generation. It should be the structural inequity that causes hardship for the young, the old and those in the middle.

What do you think? Do you feel unfairly targeted as a boomer who is punishing younger generations? Or has Richard Cooke got a point that older people are trying to lock younger people out?

Written by Kaye Fallick



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