The challenges of an extra lifetime in the 21st century: how to prepare for living into our nineties

14 September 2012

Australians today can expect to live on average an extra 30 years compared with their grandparents, with one in four Australians estimated to be over 65 within 40 years.

In a Sydney Ideas lecture co-presented with the Faculty of Health Sciences' Ageing Work and Health Research Unit, the Hon Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission discussed the challenges associated with rapid population ageing in the 21st century.

Professor Hal Kendig, the Hon Susan Ryan, and Professor Kathryn Refshauge at the Sydney Ideas event on 12 September 2012
Professor Hal Kendig, the Hon Susan Ryan, and Professor Kathryn Refshauge at the Sydney Ideas event on 12 September 2012

"As Age Discrimination Commissioner, I grow increasingly aware that much public policy, typical employer attitudes, common insurance practice and community expectations are stuck back in the 20th century," said 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, but our whole physical environment seems to have been constructed in denial of this inconvenient truth."

Governments, employers and individuals will need to overcome substantial hurdles to manage these changes, which range from financial to family, infrastructure, workforce and health.

Even our physical environment fails to cater for older people, according to Ryan, with signage, shopping centre design, public transport and building access all designed on the assumption that users are in peak physical condition, with perfect night vision and hearing.

Financial sustainability is another major challenge presented by our ageing population. In 1909, when the age pension was introduced in Australia, 96 percent of people died before they reached pension age. Now not only do the majority of Australians reach 65, the average life expectancy is 84 for women and nearly 80 for men, and increasing every year.

"We are living in amazing times. In terms of the history of the human race, whole populations, not just individuals, are living longer, much longer than ever before," said Ryan.

"This dramatic increase in longevity has not been gradual. Spurred on by modern medicine and hygiene practices, it has been rapid."

Workforce participation drops suddenly for those over 55, with a participation rate of close to 80 percent for 44- to 55-year-olds dropping to 61 percent for 55- to and 65-year-olds. This is despite research showing that just a five percent increase in participation by this group would provide a $48 billion annual boost to the national economy.

Prolonged workforce participation would also strengthen personal finances and superannuation, reduce the number of people dependent on benefits, improve mental and physical health and happiness, strengthen personal networks, and add to pressure for public policy reform.

"The aim is to achieve more age-friendly communities," commented Ryan. "If we think deeply about how we would like things to be when we are in our nineties, we will see that many things around us these days need to be changed."

The free lecture, held at the University of Sydney on the evening of Wednesday 12 September, attracted a diverse crowd of researchers, community organisations, aged care providers, healthcare practitioners, and students and alumni of the University of Sydney.

View a transcript of the full lecture on the Human Rights Commission website

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