Boomers are not a 'challenge' but an opportunity says Mark Butler

My mother is a very typical Baby Boomer, born in 1951. Mum and her siblings grew up in the post-war prosperity of Adelaide in the 1950s and 1960s, marvelling at television and the Beatles. Never before had it been so much fun to be young. Like many of her generation, Mum married early—a Vietnam veteran— and had her children at the peak of the Echo Boom in 1970 and 1971.

Mum and her friends were presented with opportunities at work that very few women had had before, and they enthusiastically took them up. Relative economic independence along with the Whitlam Government’s family law reforms also meant that they had a freedom to leave unfulfilling relationships, which their mothers and grandmothers had generally lacked.

Mum worked hard from the time she was a teenager, raising children—sometimes by herself—and exploring a number of different careers. She has now settled into what we call her ‘third age’: a phase of life in which those twin demands of child-rearing and paid work have dropped away, and more time and energy can be devoted to self-fulfilment. Mum still does some paid work, but also paints, travels and spends time with her grandchildren. She is fit and healthy, and an avid consumer of all manner of things, both cultural and material.

Mum came of age in a political sense during the Whitlam era, and her worldview remains deeply shaped by that experience. She is confident and forthright, and places a great deal of stock in the importance of treating others with respect.

So it comes as quite a shock to her to be frequently spoken to by younger shop assistants as if she were either a small child or simply incapable of processing serious thoughts. This is a common story—Baby Boomers moving into their third age in good health and with lots of plans are now feeling the rough end of modern society’s demeaning attitude towards age.

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In 2011, the oldest members of the generation that sang ‘I hope I die before I get old’ started to turn 65 and qualify for the Age Pension. No generation in history has attracted more analysis than the Baby Boomers, and for good reason—they have profoundly changed society over the course of their lives.

The ageing of the Baby Boomers represents one of Australia’s most challenging demographic shifts ever. The most obvious challenge lies in the numbers.

This shift is not a one-off event isolated to the Baby Boomers; the generations that follow them are even bigger than the Boomers. The present shift is a window into the new normal for Australia: where a much larger share of the population is sixty-five or older.

The Baby Boomers are also the first generation to benefit fully from the longevity revolution of the twentieth century that added the best part of three decades to Australian life expectancy. The opportunity to live a fulfilling third age is one which previous generations could only imagine and which we are only beginning to comprehend.

How we manage this shift has profound implications for the generations to come as much as for the Baby Boomers. Happily, yours is a generation well accustomed to being on the cutting edge of social and economic change. The Boomers re-engineered every phase of their life in a profoundly enduring way: adolescence (a term you coined), your working lives (especially for women) and parenting.The generations that have followed have largely lived their lives within those new paradigms, overwhelmingly to their advantage.

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Baby Boomers will almost certainly have the same impact on what it means in Australia to be older.

After the 2010 federal election, I was appointed by Julia Gillard as Minister for Mental Health and Ageing. While the allocation of portfolios is always a matter for the prime minister, I had specifically asked to be given those responsibilities. During my first week in the job, a radio interviewer asked me what I was going to do ‘about the problem of ageing’. I eventually lost count of the number of times I was asked about the ‘burden’ or ‘crisis’ of ageing, or even how we might be able to ‘fix’ ageing.

The ‘time bomb’ narrative around ageing has deep roots in Australia. Some commentators and politicians regularly link the ageing of our population to the collapse of the health system, an unsustainable budget and, even, a ‘gerontocracy’ where the electorate becomes overwhelmed with older voters who use their new political clout to entrench their own privileges at the expense of everyone else.

In 2011, I held a series of forums across the country with older Australians. We were shortly expecting a report from the Productivity Commission about aged care. The forums I conducted were intended as an opportunity to hear directly from older Australians about what they thought the priorities should be in redesigning a decades-old aged care system, and more broadly about ageing.

These forums gave me the most valuable insights into my responsibilities as Minister for Mental Health and Ageing—substantially more valuable than the standard parade of expert briefings and written submissions that characterises so much of the life of a government minister. It is clear that older Australians are, on the whole, enjoying their retirement. Nonetheless, it struck me through those forums how widespread is a general sense of unease or foreboding.

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Older Australians are generally living on the edge financially, and are very nervous about the constant chatter about the unsustainability of existing pension entitlements.

They are resentful—and often shocked—by the way in which the rest of society treats them as they age. And they are frightened about what confronts them in their ‘fourth age’; the period of decline, dependence and, eventually, death.

So much of the public debate in Australia around ageing focuses on the downside: the pressure on the federal budget or the thinning out of the labour market. The Baby Boomers are the first generation to start to reap the full benefits of the twentieth century’s longevity revolution. Instead of a spirit of celebration, their retirement is being greeted as a doomsday event by too many commentators. Older Australians are made to feel like a burden on the community to which they contributed so much through their lives.

It’s a terrible pity that such a fortunate nation is approaching this period of ageing with—at best—general ambivalence and— at worst—outright hostility. Much of the current national debate threatens to betray all of the hard work done over the course of the twentieth century to enable future generations to live longer, happier lives.

In saying that, there are substantial challenges for Australia in being able to manage this demographic shift well. But the challenges should be viewed primarily from the perspective of the older Australian themselves: our parent or grandparent today, but the person all of us would hope to be in our own third age.

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The challenge now is to make sure—as far as possible—that the extra years are good years; that they are years in which older Australians remain active, healthy, secure and connected to their community. While much of the responsibility for that rests with older Australians themselves, the attitude of the rest of the community to ageing and actions by governments will also be important.

What do you think of what Mark Butler has to say? Share your thoughts. 

This is an edited extract from Mark Butler’s book, Advanced Australia, find out more here.