News

Life goes on, and it's time we prepared for living into our 90s



12 September 2012

Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan: "So many rules and attitudes in public policy and commercial practice seem to contain the notion that 65 is the cut-off point for most things. The fact is, those 90s are rushing towards us."
Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan: "So many rules and attitudes in public policy and commercial practice seem to contain the notion that 65 is the cut-off point for most things. The fact is, those 90s are rushing towards us."

A recent report from the Australian Institute of Actuaries suggested it was plausible that the life expectancy of young people living today could exceed 120 years.

And not only are we living longer, we are living in better health. At age 65, females can now expect to live another 21.8 years, including 16.1 years without a severe or profound core activity limitation. For men, the figures are 18.7 years and 15.2 years.

According to Ian Hickie, executive director of the University of Sydney's Brain and Mind Research Institute: ''Today's physically active 70-year-olds who don't smoke have scans showing brains that look 10 to 15 years younger than those of their parents' generation at the same age - more of whom were smokers."

In 1909, when the age pension was introduced in Australia, 96 percent of people died before they reached pension age. Now 75 percent of men and close to 85 percent of women reach the age of 65, and the average life expectancy today is 84 for women and nearly 80 for men, and it is increasing every year.

Instead of the 4 percent of the population being age pensioners in 1909, 11 percent of the entire population draw full or part pensions and will continue to do so for a long time - 20 or 30 years.

On average, we denizens of the 21st century, compared with our grandparents, have another 30 years, what I am calling an extra life to lead.

These demographic changes are well documented, much reported and should be widely recognised in public policy, employment practices and community values. Strangely, they are not. Right now in Australia we waste the human capital represented by older workers.

I recently commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to measure what we would gain, what the impact would be on the national economy, if we could increase the workforce participation rate of the over-55s.

The figures are astounding. With just a 3 percent increase in participation by this group, we should see a $33 billion annual boost to the national economy. With a 5 percent increase in participation, we would see a $48 billion boost. To place numbers on these dollar figures, a 5 percent increase would mean about an extra 750,000 over-55s in paid work instead of living on benefits.

So many rules and attitudes in public policy and commercial practice seem to contain the notion that 65 is the cut-off point for most things. The fact is, those 90s are rushing towards us.

But our whole physical environment seems to have been constructed in denial of this inconvenient truth. Streets, signage, access to buildings, shopping centre design, lighting, public transport are all constructed on the assumption that users are, without exception, between 20 and 40 years old, in peak physical condition, have perfect night vision and 100 percent hearing.

Users of all ages are exposed to injury when footpaths, kerbs and roads are strewn with hazards: gaps, holes, cracks and bumps. These obstacles trip up users of all ages but are particularly vicious for older people.

This sort of neglect of our physical environment comes from our unwillingness as a society to recognise the inevitability of growing old.

Working out how long we are likely to live as individuals is probably the greatest risk management challenge individuals face.

Should we at 70 start spending up big with what we have saved? Make fancy travel plans? No more economy class on those long overseas trips? Or should we make a philanthropic gesture, such as funding a scholarship in our name, or a venue in a theatre, gallery or university, the kind of spending that buys, if not immortality, a few years' post-death continuity for our names?

Should we give most of it to our kids, on the basis that they need it now and we will probably be dead before they can truly pay their own way?

I would say we should plan, if we can, to be able to have a reasonable income in our 90s, to be living somewhere that we enjoy, and that is safe and comfortable. We should consider seriously taking up a new area of study or activity once we have left the paid workforce, and we should pay a great deal of attention to our relationships, to our families, friends and communities.

Evidence is overwhelming that the people in their 90s who do best are living in their own homes, are engaged with enjoyable and stimulating activities, and have strong social networks.

The longer you work, the stronger your personal finances are. You build up more superannuation and reduce the years you will need to live on it. You are more likely to pay off a mortgage, ensuring that you have a major asset to take you forward to your personal century. As well as getting these financial benefits, you will be healthier and happier.


Susan Ryan is the Age Discrimination Commissioner. This is an edited extract of her Sydney Ideas speech at 6pm tonight.


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