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When the figures don’t tell the full story

With the fourth Intergenerational Report due to be published tomorrow, AAG president Dr Briony Dow shares her concerns about the way numbers are used in political and public debate to characterise older people as a burden on society.

The Australian Association of Gerontology is committed to having evidence trump stereotypes. We are particularly concerned about negative stereotyping of older people as individuals and as part of an ageing population – public discourses based on ageism rather than facts. A recent example of this is the idea gaining currency in some circles that the older generation are “leaners” rather than contributors and an unfair burden on the hardworking younger generation.

Dr Briony Dow

Dr Briony Dow

The fourth Intergenerational Report, which is due to be published tomorrow, will update the old-age dependency ratios, which compare the proportion of the population of traditional working age with those who are over 65.

According to the third Intergenerational Report, these ratios are expected to reduce from five people of working age for every person aged 65 and over now to 2.7 to one by 2050. While these figures are based on accurate information, what concerns me is the way that these ratios are used in political and public debate to characterise older people as a burden on society.

The very term “old-age dependency” ratio implies that those who are over 64 are dependent on those aged between 18 and 64. It implies a one-way flow of resources and support, despite the fact that studies of intergenerational exchange consistently show that at an individual and family level, older people are much more likely to give material aid and support to younger people than the reverse. It leads people to assume that all older people are fully reliant on the younger taxpayers for their income whereas, in fact, less than half of people of pension age are full pensioners, about a further quarter are part pensioners and another quarter are full self-funded. The latter groups are still paying taxes.

Furthermore, old-age dependency ratios do not tell the full story. They do not measure workforce participation – they compare people into different age groups as if one age group are fully participating in the workforce and the other is not. A better measure would be of actual workforce participation of both groups. Participation amongst older groups, especially women, has increased dramatically in recent years. A recent report by the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR) suggests that GDP could be improved by 2.4 per cent if all non-participating people over 55 who wanted to work could do so.

But even if people over the age of 64 are not working that does not mean they are not contributing to productivity and social capital. It is well known that older people are much more likely than younger people to volunteer. They make up about one quarter of our population of carers, who as a group saved the taxpayer an estimated $40 billion per year in 2010; five years on, this figure will now be much higher. They enable younger people to go to work by looking after grandchildren. A recent COTA NSW report found that between 10 and 20 per cent of people over 65 were providing child care for their grandchildren and the average amount of care was 12.7 hours per week, saving over $90 million a year in NSW alone.

I would like to see more of these measures of productivity included in any intergenerational analysis.

Dr Robert Butler first defined ageism in 1969 as:

“a process of systematic stereotyping or discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish with skin colour and gender”.

Ageism, he stated, “allows the younger generations to see older people as different from themselves…”

The public discourse surrounding the old-age dependency ratios enables counter-productive intergenerational conflict. Those of working age are encouraged to believe that they are financially supporting the older generations to their own detriment. It ignores the fact that people over 65 were younger once and have probably spent a lifetime contributing as workers and taxpayers. It characterises older people as different from their younger counterparts and thereby enables intergenerational divisions and stereotyping.

There is little benefit in blaming the older generation for being born when they were. The main reason for declining old-age dependency ratios is the huge birth explosion after the Second World War and declining fertility since. It is nobody’s fault. At AAG we encourage the generations to work together to envisage a future where older people have every opportunity to participate and their participation is recognised and valued. This will benefit not only today’s older people but current younger generations if they are lucky enough to live to older age themselves one day.

Dr Briony Dow is president of the Australian Association of Gerontology and director of the health promotion division at NARI. Australian Ageing Agenda is the media partner of the AAG.

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One Response to When the figures don’t tell the full story

  1. John W Batty March 10, 2015 at 10:23 pm #

    I would also like to see the benefit of retirees in their first 5 years of retirement.
    Many spend some of their cash upgrading vehicles, buying a caravan, going on holidays, upgrading their home, etc. All these things would be very welcome to suppliers and service providers.

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