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The rise of the wrinklies - the silver century

By Peter Curson - posted Friday, 22 October 2004


Australia stands on the threshold of a major revolution. When it is over our children and our grandchildren will live in a country demographically much older than that we have ever known. This will be a defining moment. It will to large extent determine the nature of social, economic and political life in the ensuing decades.

You may have already spotted the signs. We are all getting older and the odds of sitting next to a wrinkly (or over 65 year old) in a picture theatre, coffee bar, or bus - once about 1 in 40 - are now about 1 in 7, and within 45 years, likely to be nearer 1 in 3.

The number of Australians aged over 65 will increase explosively over the next 45 years. By 2051 almost 30 per cent of Australia’s population will be over 65. More spectacularly, the numbers aged between 65 and 74 years will probably double in these years, the numbers 75-84 more than treble, and the numbers of “old-old” those over 85, go through the roof and increase 6 fold.

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Today there are about 280,000 “old-olds” in the population. Within 45 years there may be 1.8 million and their share of the total population will have increased from about 1 per cent to at least 6 per cent. At the same time the number of children aged under 15 will fall dramatically. By 2051 there will be almost 2 people aged over 65 for every person aged less than 15 years.

For the first time in Australian history there are now almost as many people aged over 75 as there are aged under 5. Finally, women will dominate the ranks of the old and particularly the “old-old”. By mid-century there will be about 150 women for every 100 men aged over 85.

What sort of society does this herald for Australia? What are the implications of so many old and so few young? Are we looking at an Australian “retirement home” - a nation dominated by greying grannies in wheelchairs or with walking frames? A country where cinemas will require subtitles or personal hearing aids, coffee bars large two handle cups, and where childcare centres have been converted into female rest homes? Will the national anthem before a tri-nations match be sung by an octogenarian female choir, and a special stand have to be built for motorised wheelchairs ?

What will all this mean for our health care system, designed as it is for short-stay emergency care? Should we now be planning a range of new and relevant support services for the old and particularly the “old-old”? What are the implications of a soaring elderly dependency ratio for the workforce and the provision of health and support services?

Greying will also mean paying. The aged are great consumers of health care and probably consume between three and five times that of younger persons. In 45 years time, old Australians will comprise about 30 per cent of the population, but consume about 65 per cent of all prescribed drugs.

On the other side of things the spending pattern of wrinklies is of considerable concern to many companies. The elderly are bad consumers. Many marketers argue that spending dies when someone turns 55. Will we see a wide range of products targeting the aged? Or will representing a product, as an “old person’s” be the label of consumer death?

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There is an old joke, which states that if you are old and wake up in the morning and nothing aches, you are probably dead: But there is some evidence that tomorrow’s wrinklies will be sprightlier and healthier than today’s. Further, life expectancy for the aged has continued to rise and more than half of those currently aged 75 will see their 85th birthday. There are also strong social class variations in life expectancy and health in old age. If you are “rich” and well educated your chances of living a longer healthier life are much greater. Those who have had few resources throughout their lives will take this “poverty” into old age. They are likely to have less savings, be more infirm, live in unpleasant surroundings and lead much lonelier lives.

The growth of Australia’s aged population will pose some unique challenges over the next 50 years. It is clear that we need a much deeper discussion about what sort of Australia we want and what role the old and the young (and others) will play in it.

There will be some hard questions to be addressed, not the least of which is how to marry continued economic growth to a rapidly increasing aged population and whether we should try and raise birth rates and (or) encourage the immigration of younger workers. Or perhaps we should just raise the retirement age and try and retain older workers in the workforce?

Finally, there remains the question of providing adequate support and services for our retired population. For example, is health care for the aged a basic right to which everyone should be guaranteed unlimited access, or is it something for which the government simply establishes a floor of protection, leaving the rest up to the individual. Further, many of the promises that the government has made to people retiring today may be too encompassing to be met in full. As a result many people may have to put off retirement and have to find ways of insuring themselves against increasing health costs.

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Article edited by Nicholas Gruen.
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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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