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Instead of blaming old people we should look who built Australia's economy.

Date June 29, 2015

Don Edgar and Patricia Edgar

Economists like to complain that mums and dads are ruining everything, but holding oldies responsible is a divisive falsehood.

Faceless threat: Just who are all these "oldies" seemingly ripping off the system?

Faceless threat: Just who are all these "oldies" seemingly ripping off the system? Photo: Peter Braig

After being assailed for the burdens we are going to wreak on the economy by having the audacity to live longer lives, we are now responsible for the problems facing the young. Economists are prosecuting a campaign blaming old people for all the major social ills ? the high cost of housing, superannuation rorts, rising health costs, budget deficits, now youth unemployment. Take for example Ross Gittins' column on these pages last week titled Young, unemployed and putting up with it. Such misguided and short-sighted talk builds on the ageist war touted by the government in its recent Intergenerational Report which claims tomorrow's workers won't be able to support us oldies. All this negative propaganda drives a wedge between the generations.

Just who are all these "oldies" seemingly ripping off the system? Are they the wealthy over-50s, or the poor over-50s? The home-owner oldies or the oldies who have rented all their lives and have little to fall back on as rents go up? The older, divorced singles or the old couples living on a meagre pension? Are they those over retirement or pension age? Or the over-80s whose medical costs are supposed to blow future budgets apart? Perhaps they are the millions of people aged between 60-90 who do hours of volunteer work for their community? Or the over 45s rejected by young human resource managers as too old to even get an interview for a job?

Casualisation of the workforce, resulting from competitive globalisation, not self-interest by the old, lies at the heart of the problem. 

The old are not an homogeneous group. They cannot be lumped together as if they all have the same wealth, life experience or self-serving attitudes.

Ross Gittins belies his own attack on the old by citing the real reasons why many young people cannot find work. It's not because the old are selfishly holding down jobs when employers cut back via "natural attrition". It's because technology and the shift from manufacturing to services have taken out the traditional entry-level, relatively unskilled jobs that early school-leavers were able to get. As the Brotherhood of St Laurence figures show, it is failure to complete school or go on to further training that explains high youth unemployment. The answer lies in improving the quality of education and training, not in blaming the old.

Casualisation of the workforce, resulting from competitive globalisation, not self-interest by the old, lies at the heart of the problem. Even the difficulty of new graduates in finding jobs reflects competition from imported labour rather than a monopoly of the old staying on in available jobs. Gittins mentions this but then slips into blaming the amorphous oldies, saying "Oldies seem convinced that the young's only problem is that they don't want to work and so need to be starved back to the grindstone". Show us any parent who "lacks sympathy for youthful job seekers". Don't lump us all in together and assume you know us.

The old are in fact parents, who have worked and saved, paid for their kids' schooling, often helped them find a job, kept them at home until well into their 20s and often helped them move into home ownership at the entry level. The old are also grandparents who provide close to 80 per cent of all child care. They include the growing number of people over age 60 still in the paid workforce, taking less leave, being more reliable and productive than younger inexperienced workers and thus keeping the so-called dependency ratio at bay.

An increasing number of those over 65 say they want to stay working longer rather than retire and the government is intent on making more of them do so to lower the dependency ratio. Even here the figures are misleading because, according to Professor Peter McDonald the ANU demographer, by 2050 there will be two million more children younger than 10 years than it was anticipated a decade ago. When they enter the workforce (provided the government does its job, leading an economy that generates work opportunities) the ratio of old to young will not be problematic.

The aged are not the main cause of rising health costs either. It is the cost of new technologies and the overuse of tests and drugs that drive up costs. The pharmaceutical industry sees a bonanza in old age for they treat it as a disease. We need to move to a model that emphasises prevention and well-being rather than take a drug for every ailment.

The real question to ask is not why do "young voters cop this cruddy deal so meekly?", but "Why don't more older people speak up against such stereotyped attacks on them?" Ross Gittins should ask who built Australia's economy so we enjoy one of the highest living standards in the world; who is supporting young people through education and child-rearing; who, by staying in productive employment, is keeping the dependency ratio low?

Don't stereotype the old as a category but recognise diversity. Stop the ageist attacks on us as a group. Develop a more positive approach to ageing so that as we get older we can reinvent our lives and continue to contribute to society as we always have.

We don't want much. We want someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for. That is what young people want too. So let's talk about love and intergenerational exchange. We have much to contribute to each other. Is it beyond the wit of the government and the economists to work that out?

Dr Don Edgar and Dr Patricia Edgar are Ambassadors for the National Ageing Research Institute.