(Op-ed by Greens spokesperson for health and ageing, Senator Rachel Siewart)

There are some strange undercurrents in the current election debate around population, migration and ageing.

I have some concerns about the way our ageing population demographics are discussed so negatively and disparagingly.

We are being made very aware of the possible implications of our rapidly ageing population for our budget and workforce – with the implication that the elderly are a burden on our health, aged care and taxation systems.

We are told that we can expect to see a four-fold increase in demand for aged care services over the next decade, and that by 2050 spending on health, aged care and age-related pensions will increase to almost half of all Government spending.

These are serious and important issues that warrant a comprehensive long-term strategy to help us plan for and adapt to the challenges of the future – but so far we have seen little planning and analysis.

No-one seems to be thinking laterally about the potential benefits of having all that knowledge, experience and wisdom on tap. An ageing population bonanza!

Imagine the potential of being able to call on a large body of dedicated and experienced workers (or volunteers) with life-long networks and knowledge, at a stage of life where they’re a bit more focused on the big picture and keen to make a lasting contribution… and equipped with the patience to see things through. It is an incredible opportunity – if we can just get the conditions right.

Our ageing population is potentially a great boon for voluntary and community organisations, provided these organisations have the capacity to meet the challenge of reaching out to this mature workforce and think about how they can meet their specific needs.

This requires some consideration of access and flexibility (for elders who can or may only want to work a few hours a day, a few days a week, or for a particular season). It also means focusing on the things about work and participation that improves their quality of life and makes it all worthwhile– like meaningful work and social connectedness.

Workplaces will also need to start to think laterally to identify the kinds of tasks a mature workforce can really add value to. They also need to recognise that the kinds of working conditions and incentives that appeal and support older workers are fundamentally different to those of young parents needing a full-time salary to build a home and a future.

Improvements in healthcare and quality of life now mean that a person ‘retiring’ at 65 might still expect to be active and engaged in the community for another two or three decades – but perhaps slowing down a little in some areas, and less keen to push themselves in others.

We can expect that an increase in part-time and more flexible working conditions will become increasingly important – with semi-retired workers looking for an income that fits in with the vagaries of their superannuation plans, taxation arrangements and pension earnings thresholds.

We might also expect to see some work being more driven by lifestyle considerations – with seasonal, part-time or project-based work that is focused on achieving personal development or delivering meaningful outcomes … or as a means to support more leisure and travel.

Expanding national health initiatives to consider our future needs is also imperative as we think about an ageing population. Investing in services which help people remain as fit and healthy as possible will improve quality of life and help manage the increasing incidences of chronic diseases and hospital admissions. Accessible and coordinated medical treatments, which include provisions for mental and dental services, must be fundamental components of the health system we develop for the future.

A smart society

There is clearly a need for legislative and regulative reform to support and encourage active ageing. However, we also need to be sensitive to its diversity in both ability and expectations: Simply raising the retirement age can be a real problem for someone who has worked hard in a physically demanding job for decades while planning and looking forward to retiring at 65. For others they can feel like they are just hitting their stride and still have some of their most productive years ahead of them.

We need reforms that remove perverse disincentives to working more (or get in the way of those who want to volunteer) and have a more flexible system that encourages people to contribute as they are able, without compelling them to do more than they can.

We also need to tackle the problems of age discrimination in employment, look at the very different support requirements of the older unemployed, and think about how we set about re-skilling older workers to meet the challenges of workplace change.

We need to look at the barriers to work for the elderly such as frailty, mobility and access to transport. We may need to look at restructuring tasks around differing abilities – perhaps looking at how we combine mentoring and co-working arrangements to get the benefits of putting together age and experience with the energy and IT savvy of youth.

We know that staying active and feeling valued can make a significant contribution to the health and well-being of our seniors.

A smart society will factor in the savings it can make in its health and aged care systems into the incentives and support it provides, and the amount it invests into preventive and primary health care to keep people well.

The Greens think its time we took another look at our workplace and our health and welfare systems and re-prioritised our efforts – to move from a model of crisis-response and a focus on dysfunction to one where we focus on well-being and put more effort into keeping people well and encouraging them to lead productive and meaningful lives – for the good of our community and our nation.

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