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Talkin' about intergeneration

By Marcus Westbury - posted Saturday, 15 June 2002

I hate the baby boomers. Don’t get me wrong, not as individuals. Some of them are quite lovely people. Some of my best friends are baby boomers. But unlike Aborigines, or Young People, or Rednecks, or Immigrants, Baby Boomers never seem to raise the collective fear that most groups in society seem to generate when you get together. You never hear talkback radio raising the spectre of them hanging around in groups, exercising a disproportionate influence over social policy, or finding themselves – for whatever reason – on welfare.

Baby Boomers are politically slick. You find them everywhere decisions are being made - conspiring with each other and ganging up on the rest of us. I am not an expert, but as I understand it, Baby Boomers were responsible - in rough chronological order - for the end of morality as we knew it, hippies (including tie dye), the rise or fall of the Whitlam Government (depending on your point of view), Channel Nine, economic rationalism, the otherwise inexplicable influence of John Laws and Alan Jones, and the goddamn awful monotony of classic hits radio.

So, it didn’t come as great shock to hear that PM-in-waiting Costello has just released a report pointing out that the Baby Boomers are getting older and, shock horror, the rest of us are going to need to tighten our collective belts so that they can do so in comfort. Actually, it did come as a slight shock, given that just 12 months earlier the same Mr Costello had gone on a $900m spending spree – mush of which with long term consequences - promising elderly Australians health care cards, bonuses on their pensions, tax cuts, and free entry into a luxury retirement village in the marginal seat of their choice. Given that Mr. Costello has claimed his report is "visionary" for looking 40 years into the future, it is at best myopic that no one in treasury thought to give him a post-it note before the last election that read, "Australia's population is getting older".


This is not the first time that a government has looked this far ahead – if I remember correctly, it was an earlier version of this logic that accompanied the introduction of superannuation in the 1980s. And the logic is indisputable, an aging population will inevitably mean a much larger burden on those that are still in the workforce. But the question is really what the response should be – and how governments can plan for that over 40 years rather than between elections.

This should force us to ask a much larger question than whether or not we should be sending more disabled people back into the workforce, or how heavily we should restrict or charge for access to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Given that the report assumes that tax levels will remain constant, the first and most obvious question is whether we will need to raise taxes either now or in the future. The other important question is one of population policy and immigration. In both cases, expect a serious debate to be consumed by short term political point scoring, artificially constructed fear, and the more immediate question of who will win the next dozen elections.

Long-term planning has never been the strong point of Australian governments of either political persuasion. Perhaps Peter Costello as a relatively young man fancies himself as Treasurer and or PM for much of that time – otherwise the government would have to see a role for the ALP, the minor parties and wider community in planning for such a long term strategy. Given that a forty year plan will ultimately require the support of a dozen different parliaments, a serious response requires that all political parties get together and agree – if not on the specifics – at least on a broad framework of what governments should do, and continue to do, to deal with an aging population.

Without at least the beginnings of such a consensus, the Intergenerational Report risks becoming little more than an excuse for successive governments to implement whatever agenda might happen to be in vogue at the time. Otherwise we are in for the long-term prospect of governments acting, and successive governments undoing – without any of the long term planning the report actually calls for.

Of course, this report raises a much more terrifying prospect than the economics. It predicts that the demographic blip that has accompanied the baby boomers since they reached voting age will be with us for a long time to come. It also means that classic rock, self-obsessed radio commentators, and A Current Affair will be around for much longer than their natural lifespan. It also means that the most important demographic in federal election 2032 will be living in luxury retirement villages in marginal electorates, popping government subsidised Viagra, wearing tie died bowls outfits, and gathering around the piano singing along to "people try to put us down - talking about my generation!"

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About the Author

Marcus Westbury is a writer on media, technology and politics and the founder and manager of This Is Not Art, Australia’s largest media festival in Newcastle, NSW. At 28 years of age, he is a former professional token youth whose best days are behind him.

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