Australia’s health by socio-economic status

However you describe it, being poor, disadvantaged, or living in a low socioeconomic area is more likely to make you more susceptible to preventable chronic diseases such as heart disease, arthritis and diabetes.

Australia’s Health Tracker by Socioeconomic Status 2021 reports on the health status of Australians based on their socioeconomic standard which the study has found has a major impact on people’s health. Families and individuals with limited resources not only have more chronic disease, they are at greater risk of dying prematurely as a result of chronic health conditions. People living with mental ill-health are less likely to participate in employment, which in itself, is associated with an improvement in general mental health levels.

The ten million people living in the 40% of communities with lower and lowest socioeconomic status have much higher rates of preventable cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes or chronic respiratory diseases than others in the population. These communities also have the highest rates of suicide throughout the nation.

Risk factors that are likely to contribute to this higher rate of illness and premature death include:
• Physical inactivity
• Lifetime alcohol consumption
• Daily tobacco use
• Unemployment as a result of mental health issues.

These health disparities within the Australian population are persistent despite considerable policy reform and efforts to improve services in recent decades. The targets for a healthier Australia were developed by the Australian Health Policy Collaboration, a national network of leading health experts and organisations. The Collaboration has worked with the support of the Mitchell Institute, Victoria University since 2014 to influence public and policy awareness and action to reduce high rates of preventable chronic disease in the Australian population.

The report sets health targets for medical conditions such as:
Obesity – Obesity is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, asthma, back pain and some cancers.
High cholesterol – High levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol are a risk factor for heart disease. National data from 2011-12 is the most recent available data and indicated that close to one-third of all socioeconomic groups were estimated to have high cholesterol levels.
High blood pressure – Rates of reported high blood pressure are relatively consistent across socioeconomic groups. High blood pressure is often caused by poor diet, physical inactivity, obesity and excessive alcohol consumption. It is a risk factor for chronic conditions including stroke, heart diseases, and chronic kidney disease
Diabetes – Hospitalisations and deaths related to diabetes are, respectively, 2 and 2.3 times as high in the lowest socioeconomic communities compared to the highest.

Australia’s Health Tracker by Socioeconomic Status 2021 report, The Mitchell Institute at Victoria University. Australia’s Health Tracker by Socioeconomic Status 2021 report

How has Covid-19 impacted Australian households?

It’s been over a year since Covid-19 became a part of every Australian household’s life. On a personal level, we have become accustomed to wearing a mask, sanitising our hands and remaining socially distant in public spaces.

But on a national level, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has conducted regular surveys to ascertain the changes that have occurred across the country. Some of the key findings that emerge from the May 2021 survey which was carried out when no part of the country was in lockdown are:
• Women (62%) were more likely than men (35%) to spend five or more hours in May on unpaid indoor housework.
• One in four (27%) people have prioritised their mental health since March 2020.
• One in four (27%) who wanted, or intended, to travel in winter, were replacing plans affected by COVID-19.

Managing their physical and mental health was a key area of concern:

• Since March 2020, 89% of people have participated in one or more activities to manage their physical health.
• The most common activities for managing physical health were walking regularly for transport, exercise, recreation or sport (60%), watching or changing diet (48%), regularly doing physical activity (excluding walking) (47%) and getting enough sleep (39%).
• Almost one third (32%) of people have placed more, or much more, priority on their physical health since March 2020.

Almost half of the respondents surveyed reported their health as excellent or very good and fewer people reported having poor or fair health. Most people rated their health as being about the same as before the pandemic but for those who were in poor health, they tended to report their health as worsening over time. Most respondents reported maintaining about the same level of mental health as before the pandemic using such strategies as organising their home, life or other things (36%), doing more of the things they enjoy (33%) and increasing their level of exercise or physical activity (31%).

Getting vaccinated

By May 2021, fewer people (68%) reported that they intended to be vaccinated when it became available, compared to December 2020 when 73% said they intended to be vaccinated. Those men aged over 70 years were far more likely to intend to be vaccinated than younger people. A steady 13% of respondents indicated that they did not intend to be vaccinated because of their concerns of side-effects and effectiveness.

Unpaid work

As might be expected, women were almost twice as likely as men to have spent 20 or more hours a week on unpaid caring and supervision of children (28% compared to 15%), as well as 5 hours per week on housework. In addition, almost two in three (64%) women spent 5 or more hours on unpaid cooking and baking, compared with almost two in five (37%) men.

Employed people were more likely to spend unpaid time supervising and caring for children than unemployed people.

Household finances

What effect did the pandemic have on household finances? Comparing the figures before the pandemic to May 2021, the majority (60%) reported their household finances remained the same with 22% reporting their finances had deteriorated but 17% reporting they had improved. However 20% reported that they had taken action to support the household because there had been a shortage of money by drawing on savings, increasing their credit card balance or borrowing money.

One of the more significant aspects of the pandemic was on the capacity of vulnerable people to pay bills as they arose:

• One in 13 (8%) Australians reported their household was unable to pay one or more selected bills on time over the last three months due to a shortage of money.
• People with disability (12%) were more likely than people with no disability (7%) to report their household was unable to pay one or more selected bills on time over the last three months due to a shortage of money.
• The majority (91%) of Australians reported their household expects to be able to pay bills received in the next three months.

ABS, Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, May 2021, https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/people-and-communities/household-impacts-covid-19-survey/latest-release

COVID-19 impacts during 2020

Grandparents reported feeling disconnected and isolated from their children and grandchildren during the COVID restrictions imposed during 2020.

In two surveys conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies during each half of 2020, three out of 10 grandparents said that prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, they provided childcare to their grandchildren at least weekly. Of those grandparents, 14% of respondents with grandchildren aged under 13 years provided child care daily or several times a week, another 16% provided child care about once a week and around half provided care at least once per month.

Grandparent care and care for grandparents were most impacted during the pandemic, with respondents reporting that for many families, grandparents did not provide the usual care to their grandchildren for some months during the pandemic. Care for grandchildren ceased because of restrictions imposed on visiting family members or because parents increased their work from home.

Many grandparents reported feeling disconnected from their family and missing out on family traditions during the lockdown period. While some grandparents were able to access technological solutions to connect with family, others found the technology frustrating.

There were 7,306 respondents in the first survey of whom 6,435 completed all survey questions. In the second survey, 4,866 participants responded, of which 3,627 completed all survey questions. Over 80% were female respondents, tertiary-educated, ranging in age from over 18 years to 60+ years who lived either in a capital city, a major regional city or regional area.

Impacts on caring for others

In addition to generalised fears as to how the virus might affect the physical and mental health of family members, the pandemic forced changes to the availability of in-home support services. Caring hours for family members increased significantly over the year for 70% of respondents, nearly half of the respondents saying they spent over 30 hours per week in relation to child care and home schooling, while about 20% of respondents reported spending over 60 hours per week on caring activities which included caring for a parent or a partner.

Respondents also referred to giving assistance to non-household members which could include friends or work colleagues. This could include giving emotional assistance, or providing help with shopping, transport, house or garden maintenance and sometimes financial help.

Community volunteering was also impacted by the pandemic during 2020 in that in many volunteer-reliant charities, older volunteers were restricted in the types of volunteer work they could do and, at the same time, demand for services from charities increased due to the impact of COVID on employment and income.

Community volunteers were more likely to be older people. Survey results showed that over a quarter (27%) of respondents or their partners had engaged in some form of voluntary work in the past year, including half of those aged 70-79, 36% of those living alone, and 40% of those living in remote areas.

Of those who volunteered at some time during 2020, almost two in three (62%) continued to volunteer throughout the year, 20% volunteered before COVID but had yet to return to volunteering, 6% started volunteering after COVID, 4% stopped volunteering during COVID but have returned to volunteering, and 4% volunteered only during COVID. (The remaining 5% is other combinations.)

Report no. 1: Connection to family, friends and community, Families in Australia Survey, May 2021, https://aifs.gov.au/publications/connection-family-friends-community

Retirement village exit rules changed

New legislation means that NSW retirement village contracts will now include a timeframe that ensures timely payments for a former resident’s exit entitlements.

These changes apply only to registered interest holders with a long-term registered lease that gives them at least 50% of any capital gain.

They do not apply to:
• registered interest holders who own a lot in a strata or community scheme village or own shares in a company title or trust village that gives them their resident right; or
• unregistered interest holders.

New retirement village laws started in January 2021. The changes reflect complaints made about how exit entitlements were previously managed and provide a timeframe for former residents to receive their exit entitlements. Summarised, the changes:
• enable residents to receive exit entitlement money before their unit sells (if the sale has been ‘unreasonably delayed’);
• provide an option for residents to fund their move into aged care by accessing part of their estimated exit entitlement money;
• ensure residents no longer have to pay ongoing charges for general services for more than 42 days after they leave the retirement village (commences on 1 July 2021 onwards).

New legislation has been introduced which affects existing and all new retirement village contracts. Previously registered interest holders had to wait until a new resident either moved into or leased their old unit before they were able to receive their share of the sale proceeds (the “exit entitlements”). This could mean that if the village operator delayed the sale of a unit after the resident left, the former might not receive their exit entitlements for anywhere between two and five years.

Under the new legislation, a registered interest holder can apply to the Secretary of the Department of Finance, Services and Innovation for an exit entitlement order directing the village operator to pay the exit entitlements to the former resident even though the unit has not sold. The order can require payment after six months for Sydney metropolitan, Wollongong and Blue Mountains residences and within one year anywhere else in NSW. This order will only be made if the village operator has “unreasonably delayed” the sale considering the time taken to refurbish the unit and whether the operator as selling agent has performed all their duties within reasonable time.

Such an application can only be made by a former resident but not their estate. If the order is made, the exit entitlement must be paid with 30 days of the order.

If the registered interest holder moves out of the retirement village into a residential aged care facility and has not received their exit entitlement, the resident may ask that the operator make one or more daily accommodation payments to the facility on behalf of the resident within 28 days of the resident’s request. As more than 60% of residents move directly into aged care, their move can be delayed if they do not have access to funds to pay the daily accommodation payments to the facility and the unit does not sell quickly. These amendments are intended to make the transfer easier for residents and family members.

For more detail, see Fair Trading website, https://www.fairtrading.nsw.gov.au/about-fair-trading/legislation-and-publications/changes-to-legislation/changes-to-retirement-village-laws

New Year resolutions for a lucky country

It’s the start of a new year and it’s the perfect time to make your own resolutions for the year. Lose weight, get more exercise, drink less alcohol – we all know about those. We also know that if we don’t incorporate those resolutions into our daily routine from day one, we are not likely to succeed.

Taking a national perspective – it’s been a year where managing the pandemic has been a world-wide priority rather than taking any positive policy steps. Australia has not experienced the same kind of turmoil as the US or the UK but as we come out of the pandemic crisis, what should be the policy focus for our country? What do you think should be included in the Australian government’s New Year resolutions? To be on their To Do list from day one.

Here are a few suggestions:
• Distribute the Covid-19 vaccine to anyone at risk.
• Raise the JobSeeker allowance by $100 per week.
• Recognise our First Nations people in the Constitution.
• Introduce carbon-pricing for all industries to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2040.
• Implement a nation-wide bushfire emergency plan.
• Close Nauru and bring all refugees to Australia.
• Buy all the empty apartment blocks around Sydney and use them to provide affordable housing.
• Initiate key recommendations from Aged Care Commission in all aged care homes.
• Develop a plan for all coal industry workers to transition to renewable energy industries.
• Reduce the registration costs for all electric cars.

Sexual assaults increase during pandemic lockdown

The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) has released its statistics for the second quarter ending June 2020 which showed that recorded incidents of break ins, car theft and retail theft were significantly interrupted by the pandemic response.

The only major exception to the reduction in offences is reported sexual assaults which rose 9.4% year-on-year to June 2020, similar to the upward trend reported in the previous quarterly report.

Sexual assault increased in two of the 15 Sydney Statistical Areas:

Blacktown (up 24.4%, or 71 additional incidents)
Sutherland (up 59.2%, or 45 additional incidents)

Two Sydney regions had a significant increase in recorded rates of domestic assault in the past two years:
Baulkham Hills & Hawkesbury (up 32.7%, or 123 additional incidents),
Parramatta (up 9.9% or 175 additional incidents)

Regional NSW saw significant upward trends in recorded rates of sexual assault in three of the 13 statistical areas:
Hunter Valley excluding Newcastle (up 19.7% or 59 additional incidents),
Illawarra (up 33.7% or 66 additional incidents), and:
Southern Highlands and Shoalhaven (up 63.9% or 62 additional incidents).

Domestic violence related assault increased in the Murray (up 25.1% or 127 additional incidents)

Commenting on the findings, Executive Director of BOCSAR, Jackie Fitzgerald, said the continuing increase in reported sexual assaults was a worrying trend. “It appears that at least some of the increase in sexual assault is related to an increase in secondary and mandatory reporting of child sexual assault. We will continue to closely monitor trends in this offence.”

BOSCAR media release, 2/09/20: https://www.bocsar.nsw.gov.au/Pages/bocsar_media_releases/2020/mr-NSW-Recorded-Crime-Statistics-Quarterly-Update-June-2020-aspx.aspx

Author talk at Dennis Johnson Library Stanhope Gardens

Come along to join in the retirement conversation on

Join Alice and have a retirement conversation.
Saturday, 24 October 2020 at 1:30 pm – 3:00 pm.
At the Dennis Johnson Library, Cnr Stanhope Parkway & Sentry Drive, Stanhope Gardens, NSW 2768

Women experience retirement differently to men. Women generally live longer, have less money and volunteer more than their male counterparts. A practicing lawyer for over 30 years, Alice Mantel encourages making better decisions, giving advice on topics such as:

Inspiring women to make the most of their retirement opportunities, Every Woman’s Guide to Retirement encourages an active, connected lifestyle, staying healthy, lifelong learning, de-cluttering, and even online dating to make the most of this time.

The Economic Impacts of Ageism

Emma Dawson, Executive Director, Per Capita made this speech to the COTA Australia National Policy Forum at the National Press Club, Canberra on 13 June 2019. She makes some an excellent points about the effects of ageism on older people finding and retaining work and the growing number of older women in poverty.

Her speech follows:
I begin by acknowledging that we meet today on the land of the Ngunnawal people, and pay respects to their elders past, present and emerging. This is, and always will be, Aboriginal land, land which was never ceded.

Thank you to COTA and the Benevolent Society for inviting me to speak to you today about the economic impacts of ageism. Per Capita has long standing and valued relationships with both of you, of course, and we, like all Australians, greatly value the work you do to advocate for older people and improve the lives of all our citizens.

It’s a particular privilege for me to be a member of the steering committee for the “Every Age Counts” campaign, which is doing such important work combatting ageism in Australia. As has often been noted, Ageism seems to be the last remaining socially accepted form of prejudice, so the work being done by Kirsty, Marlene, Kerry, Sue and the team, and the leadership of Robert Tickner, is so important.

And Ageism is more than insulting; like all forms of entrenched and widespread prejudice, it has real and measurable effects on people’s wellbeing – on their mental and physical health, their social connectedness and their economic security.

The economic impact of Ageism may be the least well understood of these effects, but in fact it influences all the other outcomes of the prejudice that older people experience in our society.

That is, it is in large part Ageism in our economic systems that leads to the negative health and social experiences of older people in Australia.

The root of the problem can be found in the dominant narrative in our political and social discourse that frames ageing as almost entirely a negative experience.

Western culture is one that celebrates youth. Ageing is seen as a decline, with little to recommend it. Of course, other cultures – not least that of our First Nations people – are much better at valuing and respecting elders, but white, European culture has almost completely lost the ability to recognise the positive aspects of ageing.

It’s rare for us to hear stories in the national media or public debate about the benefits of ageing – the getting of wisdom, the accumulation of experience, the growth of resilience.

The sense of contentedness that comes with raising a family or ticking off career goals. The leaving behind of the race to prove oneself to people who really don’t matter.

These are all things that people gain as they age, and – with the exception of a few enlightened social commentators – we don’t hear much about these things at all.

Instead, we hear about the things people LOSE as they age: their looks; their agility; their memories; their independence; their productivity.

The fact is, we live in a political system that lauds economic productivity as the most important contribution humans can make to society.

So when a group of people is repeatedly dismissed as declining in productivity by virtue of the fact that they are getting older, we end up with a pervasive narrative that older people are an economic burden on the rest of us.

This infiltrates economic and social policy making. The entrenched assumption that older people take much more from our economy and our society than they give to it leads to the creation of policies and the entrenchment of social attitudes that reinforce the barriers to social and economic participation.

That is, the assumption that older people are a burden on society creates an economic system in which older people are, in many interrelated ways, forced into BEING a burden – prevented by systematic prejudices from contributing to their full capacity, from fully exercising their right to live a self-determined, self-reliant life – and from having the contributions they do make recognised and valued as they should be.

But let me step back and give you some statistics.

Every five years, the Department of Treasury and Finance releases the Intergenerational Report – that in itself shows that we frame ageing and intergenerational relationships through an economic lens.

With another report due next year, the 2015 report provides the most up-to-date data available for the projected demographic changes of the next forty years – out to 2055.

The report tells us that Australians will live longer and continue to have one of the longest life expectancies in the world.

There are projected to be around 40,000 people aged over 100. This is a dramatic increase, well over three hundred times the 122 Australians who marked their centenary in 1974.

There will be more than double the number of Australians aged over 65 than there are today, and nearly two million Australians, or 4.9 per cent of the population, will be aged 85 and over – I hope to be one of them!

This all sounds like very good news. But the report is focused on the economic impacts of this demographic change for Australia’s federal budget, and sounds a warning that, on current policy settings, we face, quote, “an unequivocal deterioration in fiscal sustainability”.

In other words, this many older people will send Australia broke unless we change our policy settings to adapt to an ageing population.

A big part of this challenge will be reframing how we view ageing, and removing Ageism and the concept of older people as a burden from the policy process and our economic systems.

So let’s take an honest look at the cost and contribution of older people to Australia’s society and economy.

It’s true that, at just over 44 billion dollars annually, the age pension is the largest social security spending measure on the government’s books.

Yes, it’s a lot of money.

But consider this. The Australian Institute of Family Studies estimated the value of unpaid caring and other voluntary work by people aged over 65 at around 39 billion dollars each year – and those figures are 15 years old. The figure is likely to be significantly higher today.

There isn’t nearly enough analysis of the value of unpaid work done in our society, but on those 15 year old figures alone, and assuming the likely increase in the years since, we can see that the cost of the age pension is easily offset by the unpaid work older people contribute to our economy.

Along with women, who undertake the vast majority of unpaid care work throughout their lives, older people, men included, make a disproportionate contribution to our society and economy by caring for grandchildren, caring for spouses and other relatives, and volunteering in their communities.

Of course, the costs of age pensions and aged care services are likely to rise in line with a greater proportion of people aged over 65, and especially over 85, in future.

Under current policy settings, Australian Government expenditure on Age and Service pensions is projected to rise as a per cent of Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, from 2.9 per cent in 2015 to 3.6 per cent in 2055 – that’s 165 billion dollars annually in today’s dollars.

But the Intergenerational Report also notes that, in the near future, not only will Australians live longer, but improvements in health mean they are more likely to remain active for longer.

So the overwhelming likelihood is that the voluntary contribution of older people will increase at least in line with, but probably in excess of, the costs of caring for older people.

I would note here that the government has committed to reintroducing the Time Use Survey from next year, and this will give us a much more accurate picture of the economic contribution made by older, so-called retired people.

This should furnish economists and policy makers with the data to help us to counter the negative narrative that older people are an economic burden on society, and quantify their contributions.

Per Capita will be undertaking economic modelling and policy work in this area through our Centre for Applied Policy In Positive Ageing which, like the Every Age Counts Campaign, is generously supported by the Wicking Trust.

Volunteering, and providing unpaid care, is one field of endeavour in which older people are less likely to encounter barriers based on ageism: our society depends on their unpaid work, so their contribution is rarely, if ever, refused.

When it comes to paid work, however, it’s a very different story – as we have heard this morning.

The retirement age is between 65 and 67 years old, but for many people, that’s no longer the age at which they stop working, but rather the age at which they can access the pension or their superannuation, or both.

65 simply isn’t what it used to be. Of course, not all workers can continue working many years beyond the traditional retirement age – those engaged in physical labour, like nurses, construction workers, agricultural workers and workers in the resource sector find their ability to continue in their jobs is often limited by injury or wear and tear.

But many more people remain physically active, and mentally acute, well into older age than was true even a generation ago.

Our retirement age, and the underpinnings of our retirement income system, were set a century ago. The fact is, today, many older people want to keep working, but are shut out of the labour market due to ageism in the workforce.

A 2017 report by the University of South Australia found that more than a third of workers aged over 50 had experienced age discrimination in the workforce, and confirmed a strong perception across society that older workers were not suitable for employment.

This followed the 2016 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, under then age discrimination commissioner Susan Ryan, that Australia is experiencing a significant rise in long term mature-age unemployment.

The AHRC report found that the average length of time spent looking for work for unemployed people aged over 55 was 68 weeks.

That’s more than twice the length of time out of the workforce for those aged 15 – 24.

So while youth unemployment is comparably high in Australia, it tends to be a temporary experience.

For older workers thrown out of work, it can be permanent, or mean that so long is spent looking for a job that savings and assets built up over a lifetime are significantly depleted.

Particularly for women, who often take time out of the paid workforce to care for children and other relatives, getting back into work can prove almost impossible. ACOSS estimates that 49% of people living on Newstart are women aged over 45. Many of them are single mothers.

I would remind you all that the rate of Newstart is just under $40 a day.

This is a significant factor contributing to the reprehensible statistic that women over 55 are the fastest growing group of homeless people in Australia – a fact I will repeat in every speech I give on economic insecurity until it is no longer true.

Yet many older people want to work well beyond the age of 65 – and, often, they have to.

A report published just yesterday in The Conversation showed that, based on microdata from the Bureau of Statistics survey of income and housing, the number of older Australian’s carrying mortgage debt into retirement is increasing at an alarming rate.

For home owners aged 55 to 64 years, the proportion owing money on mortgages has more than tripled in just 15 years – from 14 per cent in 1990 to 47 percent in 2015.

In the same age bracket, the mortgage debt-to-income ratio has almost doubled in the same period, from 72% to 132%.

This is an economic time bomb for Australia’s retirement incomes system. The policy settings that underpin retirement incomes in Australia are predicated on the assumption that people own their houses outright.

Per Capita’s 2016 research, with the Benevolent Society and the Longevity Hub, into the Adequacy of the Age Pension, found that the group most likely to live in poverty was comprised of single pensioners who rented in the private market.

There are many intersecting reasons why people are reaching retirement age while still owing money on their homes. Most obviously is the significant and unsustainable increase in house prices over the last two decades. This means not only that people are borrowing more to buy a home, but that they must save much longer for a deposit, delaying their entry into the housing market.

To leave the data for a moment and bring a personal perspective into this – I am one of those people. I met my partner when I was 39. I had a mortgage on a one bedroom apartment but he was renting. We married within a year, and bought our current, two-bedroom apartment, and just under two years later, we had our child.

When we reach 65, we’ll still have four years to go on that mortgage. Our child will be 24 – so on current projections on the age at which middle-class kids move out of home, she’ll still be with us for up to a decade!

Fortunately, I have a much better superannuation balance than most women my age – a function of having worked in universities, where the contribution rate is 15%, and of working full time right through my thirties. So I’ll probably be able to pay the mortgage off with super.

But many older people, particularly in the next five to ten years, won’t have that option. They haven’t had compulsory super all their working lives, as I have, and if, like me, they are supporting kids at home well into their fifties, and working for an average or median wage, their ability to “salary sacrifice” into their super, or make extra repayments on their mortgage, is very limited.

So the ageism that keeps these older workers unemployed for long periods of time, particularly as traditional industries are disrupted by automation and skills sets are made obsolete by changing technologies, has real economic implications for their financial security in retirement.

It’s impossible to pay off a mortgage on the age pension.

Many will have no choice but to sell their homes and downsize into unsuitable accommodation, often outside of the communities in which they live happily.

Recent research we have undertaken at Per Capita revealed that, contrary to popular understanding, older people aren’t unreasonably insistent on staying in the family home as they age. It’s not the actual house they are attached to, but their local community – but there is a dearth of appropriate housing for people to “right-size” into within those local communities.

In the recent election campaign, we heard a lot about relatively wealthy retirees potentially losing income from tax reform policies being proposed by the opposition.

While the facts of voting patterns seem to indicate that those people who were actually going to be affected by Labor’s proposal to remove franking credit rebates for non-taxpayers actually swung towards Labor – presumably because they could afford to – the fear of losing retirement incomes seems to have been a real factor in how some people voted at that election.

This points to the helplessness many older people feel in our society when it comes to having control over their incomes and financial security.

Because the fact is that too many older working people know they won’t get another job if they lose theirs, and this is almost entirely due to ageism and the belief that older workers can’t adapt to changing workplaces.

Following the release of the Deloitte report into employment yesterday, Tim Colebatch noted on social media that half of the growth in the full-time workforce since the Global Financial Crisis has been in people aged over 50. This sounds like a good thing, but too many of these older workers are stuck in jobs with often poor conditions and wages because they are too scared to move – they know if they lose their job because their boss finds out they are looking elsewhere, they won’t get another one. Similarly, they are too frightened to ask for a pay rise in case they are let go for a younger, cheaper option. The fear of unemployment due to ageism is reducing their bargaining power. This is one of the causes of low wage growth in our economy

In fact, repeated studies, both here and overseas, have shown that older workers are more productive (they are less likely to spend time at work on Facebook!), more reliable, less likely to leave their jobs every two to five years, and bring experience and complex problem solving abilities to the workforce that have taken years to develop.

The economic benefits of hiring or retaining older workers have been quantified and demonstrated again and again, so it can only be an entrenched and unfounded prejudice that prevents employers from valuing them as they should.

So what are the economic policy shifts we need to enact to overcome the economic impacts of ageism and our inability to value the contribution of older people to society?

Firstly, we need to get the so-called “problem” in perspective. Yes, Australia’s society is ageing – societies in all developed, wealthy nations are.

But we are not ageing as rapidly as some others – Japan, for example, is facing a real crisis with more than a third of its population estimated to be over the age of 65 by 2050. This will place an impossible taxation burden on people of working age.

Japan has now announced that it will revise its immigration policies to address this – and we know that works, because it is immigration that is keeping Australia’s economy growing and keeping our population relatively young.

Secondly, we need to rethink the concept of being “old”. While certain factors of biology are inescapable – women’s fertility, for example, remains subject to the same age limits as it has for millennia – the fact is that people are able to live active lives into much older age than they were in my grandparents’ day.

The shift to a healthier, older society is one of the biggest demographic changes in our history, yet we don’t have a holistic approach to dealing with it.

Some years ago, Per Capita published a Blueprint for an Ageing Australia – we need to revisit that work and develop a whole-of-government architecture to addressing the challenges and taking advantage of the opportunities of an ageing population.

To turn to some specific policy solutions, we need to rethink our housing market. We need better options for housing for people as they age. As I mentioned earlier, older people would like to “down size” from the four-bedroom family home, but there aren’t enough “right-size” properties in their local communities, where they have friends, children and grandchildren and social networks.

We need more medium-density development in our established suburbs, and planning laws need to change to encourage this. It shouldn’t be about developers squeezing the most profit out of a quarter-acre block by cramming in three double-story townhouses with no gardens, when what people need are single-level, two and three bedroom homes with small, manageable gardens.

And we need to make it less expensive for people to leave the family home. Stamp duty is a huge barrier – state governments could consider waiving or discounting it for people over 70 – or better still, eliminating stamp duty altogether and moving gradually to a land tax, as is being done here in the ACT.

We also need to rethink our working structures. Older people should be able to transition out of full time work gradually, without losing access to age-related pensions and benefits, so that they are able to remain productive as long as they want to, need to or are able to.

Governments can do more to incentivise employers to retain older workers. While subsidised employment schemes often result in employers hiring older workers only for as long as the subsidies last, and are therefore inefficient, measures such as discounted payroll tax and other incentives should be considered to encourage employers to retain experienced older workers in favour of letting them go for younger workers on cheaper rates.

There is a role for business here too. Business should adopt “blind recruitment” policies, where CVs are submitted without gender, names (which often signal ethnicity) or ages. Studies have shown this practice significantly diversifies the candidates selected for interview.

And our tax and transfer system needs a thorough overhaul. It was good to hear, in the wake of the election campaign, the treasurer Josh Frydenberg indicate a willingness to consider implementing the recommendation of the Productivity Commission to undertake a review of retirement incomes. It is sorely needed.

The danger, following the scare campaigns around so-called “death taxes” and the mispresentation of Labor’s dividend imputation policy as a retiree tax, is that any review launched by the government won’t adequately consider all the possible options to improve people’s economic security in older age.

We must advocate for a genuinely broad-ranging review, one that looks urgently at the rate of Newstart, on which too many people are trapped between their fifties and the pension access age of 65. Our employment services should recognise the reality that people in this situation are far less likely than younger job seekers to find work, and treat them accordingly. Older people out of work often fear applying for short term or casual employment, because their benefits are cut, or they are removed from the system, only to have to re-engage from the start again at the end of a short-term contract, meaning they go through waiting periods with no income, or may incur the dreaded “robodebt”.

Employment Services in this country need a complete overhaul, and one important part is to introduce new requirements for older job seekers – allowing them to earn occasional income without reducing their benefits, for example. We are moving in the wrong direction on this – last year, the number of volunteer hours older job seekers could claim as recognised activity for income support payments was reduced. This is entirely the wrong approach.

Further, the settings of Commonwealth Rent Assistance, which should be pegged to the cost of housing; and we must reconsider the overly generous tax concessions on superannuation that disproportionately benefit the wealthy; and yes, even at dividend imputation, or franking credits.

The fact is, the cost of giving cash to people who don’t pay income tax in the form of franking credit rebates costs the federal budget more than $6 billion a year, and is predicted to rise to $11 billion over the next few years. That’s will bring it to the same cost as Newstart.

One of the reasons I kept hearing for people’s fear of that particularly controversial policy was that older people need to live off the income from their superannuation rather than draw down on the balance of their savings because they are fearful of needing the lump sum to pay for entry to an aged care home or significant health care needs in their older age.

This is a legitimate fear – once you are no longer earning, the need to protect the money you have becomes more acute.

But what if we were to invest the billions of dollars spent on giving people cash refunds into aged home care packages?

The waiting list for this much-preferred option of aged care is now around 18 months, and it’s widely acknowledged that the program is woefully underfunded and cannot keep up with demand. If we were to invest those billions of dollars currently going as gifts to wealthy non-taxpayers into guaranteed home care packages for people when they become frail, I imagine that would give many older people peace of mind and allow them to spend more of their retirement savings when they are well enough to enjoy them.

A genuine review of retirement incomes would look at the best way to spend our common wealth on giving older people real choices – the choice to continue working as long as they would like to; the choice of suitable housing in the communities they want to live in; the choice to age in place at home with appropriate care; the choice to set aside some of our collective superannuation wealth into a levy to provide discrete funding for our aged care system; and the choice to contribute to their communities and their families and have that contribution valued by the wider society.

All of this begins with us rethinking how we view ageing in our society – to stop thinking of older people as an economic burden, and start recognizing the many and varied ways they have, and do, and can continue to live a good life in our wealthy and prosperous nation.

Thank you.

May her death not be in vain

The death of Ann-Marie Smith, who died from serious illnesses that developed while receiving full-time care in her home provided by an employee of a disability care provider is a stark warning to potential users of the home care system.

The 54-year-old Adelaide woman suffered from cerebral palsy and lived alone in Adelaide’s leafy eastern suburbs before dying in what has been described as “disgusting and degrading” conditions.

Ms Smith died in Royal Adelaide Hospital on April 6 from septic shock, multiple organ failures from severe pressure sores, and malnourishment. She had apparently been living and sleeping in the same chair in her lounge room for over a year.

While the carer was sacked by the provider, Integrity Care SA for her “serious and wilful misconduct”, Ms Smith’s death has been declared a major crime.

If your family member died in this situation, do you think simply sacking the employee would be enough? To what extent does the provider carry responsibility for their employee’s conduct?

The ongoing nature of the neglect endured by Ms Smith highlights the need to strengthen the accountability and penalty regulations applying to Commonwealth funded aged care services providers.

Rather belatedly, the federal government has announced that a Serious Incident Response Scheme (SIRS) mandatory reporting framework will be introduced into residential aged care providers from 1 July 2021 which will implement greater reporting of incidents involving residents. Potentially, SIRS may be extended into home and community aged care.

The lack of oversight of both in-home care and residential aged care has been the subject of a number of investigations and reports, with little regulatory action to date.

Under the proposed SIRS framework, care providers will be required to report on a broader range of incidents, including neglect, psychological or emotional abuse and inappropriate physical or chemical restraint. Significantly, it will also lift the current exemption on the reporting of resident on resident incidents, where the perpetrator has an assessed cognitive impairment.

The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission will receive incident reports and will have enhanced powers to administer the SIRS, including taking regulatory action where needed.
As part of the ongoing feasibility study, funding has been included to investigate the design, implementation and regulation of a worker register for aged care.

A 2019 report done by KPMG, Strengthening protections for older Australians, commissioned by the Department of Health, estimated that there were more than 20,000 unexplained serious injury incidents which were not reported under the current system. Any reform of the current aged care system is seen as increasing the regulatory burden on providers to report and respond to serious incidents with an accompanying increase in staffing of the Commission to deal with reports.

The sooner a mandatory reporting scheme is introduced, more deaths like Ann-Marie Smith’s can be prevented.

Sen R Colbeck media release, https://www.richardcolbeck.com.au/press-releases, 14/06/20
Dept of Health release, https://www.health.gov.au/resources/publications/strengthening-protections-for-older-australians, Feb 2019