Opinion The Stats Guy: Australia’s ageing-population crisis is almost upon us
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The Stats Guy: Australia’s ageing-population crisis is almost upon us

Simon Kuestenmacher ageing
We need to get our act together to prepare for a surge in the elderly population. Photo: TND
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Australia is home to 558,000 people aged over 85 years.

In the last 20 years, this age group has actually doubled in size. No wonder we talk about our ageing population so much. However, this is absolutely nothing compared to what’s about to hit us.

In just 13 years, we’ll have to look after more than one million Australians aged over 85.

Remember, 2035 is as far in the future as 2009 is in the past. This is happening soon. Another 18 years (2063) and we will have reached two million people over 85. By 2080 we will have added yet another million.

About half of the population aged 85-plus requires serious care services. Meaning they need help with core activities and have several health issues that need attention. Sometimes this care is provided for free by a family member but usually professionals need to get involved. Ageing is labour-intensive.

We need to get our act together to prepare for this surge in the elderly population. This growth isn’t even subject to errors in projections. Everyone in the future 85-plus cohort is already living in Australia. This is going to happen, and we need to get ready now.

The major concern

How many of our future elderly will have saved enough money in their superannuation accounts to pay for their own retirement?

Wealthy retirees have decent super balances, additional money in the bank, they are home owners and, quite frankly, can afford to grow old.

The growing share of elderly who had low-income careers and don’t own a home are a major concern. They will run out of cash eventually. This means we need to subsidise their retirement years through the pension scheme – potentially for decades.

We are not quite sure how big of an issue poverty in old age will be, but we know it’s going to be a huge problem.

We have a duty of care for our elderly, but they will be a huge financial burden. To shoulder that burden, we must grow the economy.

Tough decisions

Mining will be our number one tool – any calls to stop digging for environmental reasons will be silenced by the huge elderly electorate.

We will also need to encourage highly skilled migrants to settle in Australia. They create economic activity that is essential to financing our ageing population. The cliché of old people complaining about too much migration will need to be overhauled soon. Older Australians rely on migrants to finance their retirement.

You thought loneliness in old age was a societal problem right now? It sure is, but compared to what’s looming on the horizon we are living in the good old days.

The number of elderly, single-person households is going to grow sharply. That alone promotes loneliness.

If the elderly person is embedded in a welcoming and walkable neighbourhood, enough social interaction might be initiated to stave off loneliness.

What about people ageing in car-dependent dormitory suburbs? What about neighbourhoods that aren’t designed for people to walk, that are too sprawled out, that lack public meeting spaces, that are simply too hot to frequent in summer (think of the urban heat islands of Western Sydney), that have insufficient public transport links?

We can’t simply hope that the 85-plus cohort of tomorrow will simply stay connected to friends and family via the metaverse or whatever digital technology will be on offer. That’s too simplistic. People need real-life interactions on a regular basis to stay mentally active, healthy, and happy. This means we need to adjust our built environment.

Our sprawled-out cities, our car-dependent residential neighbourhoods all but guarantee loneliness. We need to learn from Mediterranean cities and create walkable suburbs – and throw in a few small urban squares while we’re at it.

Such walkable communities not only minimise loneliness in old age but keep people active for longer. This promotes good health and drives down healthcare costs.

Granted, it’s very hard to retrofit existing suburbs, but our new suburbs (and the local government areas they are built in) have no excuses for poor planning decisions.

Thankfully, the strategic plans of our biggest cities now all promote the concept of the 20-minute-city, where all essential functions of life can be reached from anywhere in the city in less than 20 minutes.

Health care overhaul

We are already committing 15 per cent of our workforce to health care and social assistance. Four decades ago, that was only 8 per cent.

Our current population of 25.4 million people (just over half a million of whom are aged over 85) gets serviced by two million healthcare workers. By all accounts these workers are overworked, and we would need an even higher number of workers in the sector already.

We must overhaul the aged care sector and the entire healthcare system to make them attractive places to work. Burn out, odd hours, overwork are all too common. The recent reports about aged care workers leaving the sector because of poor work conditions might be a dark foreshadowing of what lies ahead.

Automation

In an environment of all but universal skills shortages, aged-care workers will simply switch industries once their working conditions become too undesirable. With every worker that leaves the industry, work conditions for the remaining workers worsen, further increasing the likelihood of more workers leaving the industry.

Such a cycle drives up wages and ultimately puts care services out of reach for the poorest Australians. I cannot emphasise enough how dark such a scenario would be.

In an Australia that needs to grow its health workforce in a time of a universal skills shortage, automation is our friend.

Forget any talk about automation killing jobs. From now on it will be workers that are in short supply, not jobs. Automation across all industries is needed to free up workers to enter the health field.

Who is looking out for the future one million Aussies aged over 85? Who is putting relevant policies in place? Who is even talking about this? We have about 13 years to work that out – really, we don’t have any time at all.

The ageing of the population occurs gradually – one person, one real human, at a time. If we fail to fully shake up and reinvent the way we provide health care and assistance to our oldest Australians, we ensure that hundreds of thousands of people will have a horrible last decade-or-so of their lives.

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