Boomers are not a ‘challenge’ but an opportunity says Mark Butler 147



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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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  1. Mark Butler has a mum !! I am sure those in the Liberal Party were hatched . Mark has handle on the situation and has very eloquently stated the facts. I have far more confidence that ALP will not treat us as shamefully as the Liberal Party has done

    4 REPLY
    • we are living that history now Di Sheehy and have been for the last 2 years, have you put your house on the market yet..Morrison wants you to sell it

    • What’s this I heard about the ALP wanting get more tax out of our super? Stay away from the top 3 political parties in the next election , they all want to screw us over.

    • so do the Liberals Bev Seton you need to keep better informed but the ALP are only going after the very wealthy

  2. Those in the LNP were born with sliver spoons in their mouths, I bet all of their parents are self funded and very wealthy, they would not know what it as to struggle or to work hard for a crust only to be tossed aside and scorned as they age

    3 REPLY
    • David, I was born in 1950 in a small country town. We lived on a dairy farm which we didn’t own until I was about 20. So we never had a “silver spoon in our mouths”.! I went to the local high school not boarding school. One of my uncles was a state member of parliament who served his local farming community for nearly 30 years – horror of horrors, he was National Party through & through! The only party that ever gave a damn for the farmers & the issues surrounding country life. I studied at university in Melbourne on a government scholarship – family passed a means test as low income (they couldn’t afford to pay for me to live away from home or pay fees etc – hence Liberal Party is deserving of thanks for my success. My husband & I have worked for the past 42 years – never had dole or Centrelink help, never got family allowance payments except for 3 years when I didn’t work ( 1 year after each child), no first home grants or baby payments. We paid ladies to child mind, do housework, take kids to & from after school activities & even cook meals if we were both going to be later home than 6pm – none of this after school care at the time! We even had the audacity to send our kids to a private school where my father-in-law used to teach, just because we knew it was a very good school & we wanted our kids to have a good all-round education. We have paid taxes, have paid interest to banks for property loans for investment, have employed people, have supported our own kids in furthering their educations. And we are proud parents of 3 sons who have achieved & are still achieving & contributing to this country. We have paid land taxes to governments for the ability to own more than 1 property ( not by handouts but our own work) & sales taxes & GST’s & we are NEVER likely to be able to claim a pension. Yet how dare you say we were born with a silver spoon in our mouths. My husband came to Australia in the 60’s with his parents (who also both always worked & educated both children) who were not allowed to bring more than $200 in to the country – do you see any silver spoons here? Yet we consider ourselves lucky!?!?!?!? We are both over 60 & still working & have ok health. We still work because it funds our holidays twice a year where we see & do things a lot of our friends can’t or don’t do.

    • We are self funded and we didn’t do it easily, I worked from the age of 15 and retired at 67, my husband is still working part time at 79, we never got any hand outs from the government, we never got PAID to have children, we never bought anything until we had saved for it, we never had the latest model car, mine was traded in when it was almost 19 years old we just had the forsight to know that if we wanted a decent retirement we had to save for it. I remember many times having to work overtime on a Saturday morning only to find on pay day most of that had gone in tax.

    • We too are self funded, but far from wealthy. Worked hard to get where we are. No silver spoon here

  3. I object to being referred to as a “baby boomer”, just because I was born in the 1950’s why should I be labelled? I find the labelling ofensive.

    3 REPLY
    • They use the term these days to degrade us and to finger point, when we were young it was a badge or honor to be called a boomer, we were the power houses behind this country.

    • Yes guy’s I have to Agee with both of you, it is very degrading and they forget where most of the advancement in this wonderful country came from.

    • Its because the younger generation have NO respect for anyone but themselves . They treat us like we are stupid and just in the way .

  4. Mark Butler does have the right idea, Although I don’t trust Politicians because they have all become experts at telling us what we want to hear, especially close to an election. However I don’t enjoy being called leaners by the Politicians in the Liberal Party or the way in which they treat us, as if we are a burden on society, WHICH WE ARE NOT THANK YOU!

  5. Talk about slow learners. We were born, and there was not enough maternity beds – we went to school and there were not enough desks, we married and there was not enough housing – the same story throughout our lives. Our children are now tax payers, but there is not enough money for our old age. Either stop whining about us, or bring in euthanasia for when we are sick of listening to the whinging.

    7 REPLY
    • Attention all people over 65 who are draining the welfare system please report to your local crematorium with a suitable coffin

    • I totally agree. Im 69 next week not only am a Baby Boomer I now have aged parents in their 80- 90 going throughhell with dementia and the public health system needs a good kick.

    • Yes in all my classes in primary school there were over 50 students and in the local Catholic primary the nuns had to deal with classes or almost 100.
      An aunt gave birth in a ‘ward’ of labouring women not a room on her own as I did.

    • My first child was born in a small private maternity hospital where the matron was sleeping in one of the bathtubs because there weren’t enough beds. Apparently we were inconsiderately all having our kids at the same time

  6. I can’t see what the problem is. There might be more of us oldies than ever before, but there’s a hell of a lot more workers paying tax now than ever before too. Maybe it’s a case of pollies wasting more tax dollars, or maybe they should stop letting their mates move profits offshore. Whatever the problem is, we’ve never been leaners and we deserve our retirement

  7. Worked hard all my life still not getting any benefits self funded retiree it’s called don’t expect hand outs. Having said that would have liked some discounts on my utilities for all the tax I’ve paid

    8 REPLY
    • That would seem fair to me that you should get a discount, you are lucky to be able to self fund, many many older Australians have worked just as hard as you and had no super. Have you got a seniors card? If not apply for one you get a discount for electricity at least in N.S.W

    • Thanks Leanna I will look into that . I was a Registered Nurse for 50 years just worked hard & super didn’t start till the 80s.

    • Agree with Leanna, look into a Seniors Card. At least you’ll get discounted meds and a few other benefits

    • I agree to Elizabeth, you should be getting some small compensation for your years of hard work, even if it is only discounted bills, but in the Political climate we have a the moment , they want to take from us, not give to us.

      1 REPLY
      • Hi, Libbi, THIS political climate as you call it, started with Labour putting in little suggestions more than 3 years ago that pensions were unsustainable & we would have to work longer before retirement

    • Well when voting time comes around I hope all us useless (leaners) remember how the Liberal government has treated us?
      Make your vote count this time !

    • I to agree Elizabeth, unfortunately for me I’m not self funded but still manage as best I can, you may qualify for a Senior Healthcare Card Elizabeth which will get more discounts than just the senior card here in Victoria at least, good luck.

    • Im in a similar position, but still working part time. Qld is such a sunny state that it takes us 5 years longer to become a Senior! Im glad to have some superannuation to help me through retirement (one day….), but sometimes think I could have organised my finances differently in order to reduce my massive health care (incl lots of BCC!) utilities and other costs. Damn my war and depression era parents, who taught me to be honest, frugal and independent of the government!

    • Trish I was lucky bought property when it was not a popular area now very trendy since sold for a good price retired to the seaside but still remember when interest rates was 18%. Only retired this year 70. Next June

  8. In my humble opinion society today needs the expertise that our generation can provide.Its a shame its not utilised more as so much knowledge and talent is being lost.

    1 REPLY
    • I agree Kathy but will they give us a job or listen not likely

  9. Well said Mark Butler. So happy to read his encouraging words of praise for us older Australians. I for one, am fed up of feeling like society is going to line us all up and shoot us because we are such a burden on today’s society. I have worked so hard to raise my family as I was widowed young. It’s been difficult at times but I’m proud of how I survived. Now, I feel that I would love to be enjoying the next phase of my life. Along with so many others however, I must continue to work until I drop….where is the respect our generation SO deserves. Please, continue to stand up for us Mark Butler. We need and appreciate your help.

    5 REPLY
    • Yes Sue, I have super but nearly enough as they tell me I will need to last my lifetime! Don’t forget, women stop to have babies and some of us don’t start building it properly until our children have left the nest. Anyway, I should not be made to feel that I’m complaining. I know I’m trying my best and hardest.

    • Sue, super started (apart from Government jobs)in 1992/93, Too late for most of us baby boomers to live on now. I started my working life in Jan 1968, stopped while I had my four children and restarted working part time when my youngest started school until recently and my super is a mere pittance.

    • Marie Gammon I started work at 15 & most of my wage went on fares & helping out with board ,not much money left over back then .Our husbands supported us while we raised our kids .

  10. On the right track but those following us feel entitled and are of me generations and looking after family or considering others is not a priority for them

  11. My personal experience is that I have never been treated differently because I am nearly a senior. Perhaps when I finally get that Senior Card next January my world will change, but I suspect not. I do not like labels. I do not think we should be all lumped together under the title ‘baby boomers’, we are individuals and deserve to be treated as such. We will all age differently and all have different needs and requirments. Yes some of us will need various forms of care but some of us will not. I resent the fact that the powers that be automatically assume that I will be this horrendous drain on society. I intend to be that 90 year old who helps all the old people. That is my plan and I am sticking to it.

    1 REPLY
    • Debbie I think you are my “soul mate ” I think exactly what you have written. It is what you make of life. I am a widow my husband died when I was 29. I am now 62, I had 2small children and a mortgage so I needed to go back to work to survive and up until February this year I worked, now I am retired and love it. But all these people whinging on this site get off your butt and start helping yourself!

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