Mark O'connor August 29, 2012
Our ageing trend will put us on an even keel, says MARK O'CONNOR
Are you frightened by all this talk about ageing? I am. Ageing is what's going to kill every one of us, unless something else gets in first.
Those who lobby for Big Australia sometimes use the fear of ageing to persuade us we need high immigration and rapid population growth to stay young. They know most of us are worried about our personal ageing, and argue that we should transfer this worry to ''our ageing society''.
Only there's no connection. Having a lot of people survive (and stay healthy) into their 60s and beyond is the sign of a successful, prosperous, advanced society. There are countries where life is short, birth control seems unknown, and half the population is under 30, or even under 20. But you might not want to live there. Congo, Burundi and Zimbabwe, with a median age of no more than 18 years, have no ''ageing problem''. Where would you rather live? In contrast, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Norway are examples of countries with populations that are ageing sooner and more dramatically than Australia's.
It's also not true that we're headed for a bizarrely aged society. Australian couples - or more exactly, Australian women - are averaging just under two children each. This means we will move towards a stable population, with roughly equal numbers of people in each generation and in each 10-year age group. Sociologist Katharine Betts suggests we should see this as normal: the way that things should be in the future.
Big Australia proponents have claimed that by 2050 every person of working age will be ''supporting'' close to twice as many people over 60 as now. One lobbyist has proclaimed, ''We'll either have to double our taxation or halve our standard of living''. That sounds alarming, but it's simply untrue.
A young family on unemployment benefits is just as expensive as a couple who draw the old age pension, in fact much more so. Little wonder that the Australia Institute's researcher Pamela Kinnear concludes, ''Alarm over the 'ageing crisis' is not justified by the evidence … Population ageing is not a threat to Australia's future.'' It doesn't matter how many people we have in their working years if there's no ''jobs, jobs, jobs'' for them. Market research group Roy Morgan and economist Henry Thornton agree that nearly two million Australians don't have a job but want one.
Besides, the proportion of people over 60 is as yet quite small, so even doubling it would still leave each worker ''supporting'' only a fraction of an elderly person.
But in what sense ''supporting''? I'm now 67. I haven't noticed myself working any less, since I passed 60, than when I was 40. Or less productively. Much of the world's most responsible work, including the running of governments, is done by persons over 60.
Our real economic dependants are not the over-60s but the under-20s. The young also require many more years of looking after. Only about 7 per cent of Australians over 65 are in aged care, whereas all those under five require intense and often one-to-one care, and most of those under 17 require skilled schooling and monitoring five days a week. Of course it's not their fault that most of them are too busy getting educated and qualified to be at work. Or that for the first five years of our lives we are doubly dependent: we not only can't work ourselves but we pull others out of the workforce.
In fact, older people are more likely to be givers than receivers of care. They provide childcare for 19 per cent of children under 12 and primary care for 21 per cent of people with disabilities. And up until the age of 75, net transfers of money and help flow from the old to the young. In short, the old cost a society far less than the young. The Australian Institute of Family Studies says: ''Australians aged over 65 years contribute almost $39 billion per year in unpaid caring and voluntary work and, if the unpaid contribution of those aged 55 to 64 years is included, this contribution rises to $74.5 billion per annum''.
Let's face it: Australia's maturing population is not a threat to Australia's future, but a sign of its success.
Mark O'Connor is co-author of Why vs Why: Big Australia, published by Pantera Press.