Monday, September 21, 2015

Book review: Older Australians - Living On The Edge

Ned K.

The federal Labor Party Member for Port Adelaide, Mark Butler, has written a book called "Advanced Australia - The Politics Of Ageing". It worth reading to gain a better understanding of the impact of economic rationalism on the elderly, both materially and culturally.

Butler is well positioned to have written such a book given that he spent years representing aged care workers as an Industrial Officer in the then Miscellaneous Workers Union and then in his capacity as Minister For Mental Health and Ageing in the Gillard Government.

His book focuses on the growing aged population initiated by the "Baby Boomer" generation as they enter their "Third Age" which usually begins at the time of formal retirement from paid employment which for most Baby Boomers is between 55 and 65 years of age. He is highly critical of the reactionary view expressed in some mainstream media that older Australians are too costly for younger Australians to support financially and a social burden.

"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."

Before writing the book, Butler had many conversations with older Australians in both rural and urban environments and concluded from these conversations that "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."

The "constant chatter" against the aged has seen media like the Murdoch press give plenty of air to the argument that older people should be responsible for their own retirement survival which is really an attack on the aged pension. However as Butler rightly points out in his book, employer-paid superannuation was meant to supplement the aged pension, not eliminate it. His book contains some alarming OECD statistics about Australia's aged pension.

The public spending on Age Pensions as a percentage of GDP for all OECD countries was 9.3% in 2010. For Australia it was 3.6%, even lower than the USA which was 4.6%.

Even more striking information in the book is from an ACOSS 2014 Report on Poverty which found that when using the European definition of poverty line as 60% of the median disposable household income, "...the number of over sixty-fives rated as living in poverty climbs much more dramatically when using the European definition. Applying that definition to Age Pensioners causes the poverty rate to climb to 40 percent; for single older Australians, the rate soars to almost 60%."!

Butler's book is an attempt to awaken people to the precarious situation of older Australians and his book is a well-researched and convincing contribution to countering the ideology of capitalism which sees older Australians as an economic burden and disposable.

The book does not delve in to the profiteering of private capitalist interests at the expense of older Australians confined to residential aged care facilities. However the former Minister is well aware of the growing dominance of private equity capital in the aged care sector and the need for more regulation by the government on how residential care providers use taxpayers’ money in the sector.
Perhaps that issue will be tackled in his next book and awaits him if even a mildly progressive federal Labor Government sees the light of day in the not too distant future!

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