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An old future

By Peter Curson - posted Monday, 23 September 2019

The population ageing which much of our world is currently experiencing is historically without precedent. Since the beginning of recorded history young children have always outnumbered old people. Now we face a very different world where old people are striking back.

There is also little doubt that the next 25 years will witness even more rapid ageing and that by 2040 Australia will have around 21% of its population aged over 65 including 5% aged over 85. Today 16% of all Australians are aged over 65 including more than 500,000 aged over 85. Over the last two decades the number of people aged of 85 has increased by more than 125% compared with Australia’s total population growth of just over 34% and over the next 10 years ageing will get an extra kick as a large number of post-war baby-boomers move into retirement.  

Are we prepared for such demographic changes? In many ways I doubt it. But what is driving this surge of population ageing?


Declining fertility plays an important role. In Australia fertility rates have declined from 3.5 children per woman in the early 1960s to around 1.7 today while at the same time life expectancy has increased from 71 to 83. This draws our attention to the importance of immigration and the fact that an influx of young people can greatly impact upon fertility rates. Polish immigration to the UK some years ago shows how immigration can turn around fertility levels.

While Australia’s ageing represents a triumph of medical, social and economic factors it also presents us with a host of challenges. Ageing places stress on pension and insurance systems, on housing and existing models of social support as well as questioning our government’s ability to provide resources for older citizens.

As the US National Institute of Aging pointed out some years ago, the growth of the oldest old has a number of implications. Firstly, pensions and retirement benefits will have to cover a longer period of life. Secondly, health costs will increase. Finally, intergenerational relationships will take on an added dimension as the number of grandparents and great grandparents increases.

The next 25 years will see major contractions in Australia’s working population and increasingly fewer workers will have to support growing numbers of old people.  Perhaps it is now time to for us to reassess what is actually “old” in the context of such changes as well as to reassess our immigration policy and the future of ageing in Australia.

But how can we continue to grow old successfully?

Most of us place emphasis on good health, family connections and social and economic stability as our main goals. In Australia growing old presents us with a raft of issues including physical disability, cognitive decline, the threat of dementia, loss of employment and social relationships and often an uncertain financial future.


But is ageing and retirement all that it has been made out to be particularly if we miss our job and all the social interactions that flowed from it. There seems little doubt that people in their 70s who continue to work believing that they still have something to offer are much more likely to stay relatively healthy compared with those who give up.

It would also appear that many employers value older workers as being more reliable, conscientious and loyal than younger ones. Interestingly the people who can find work in their 70s and beyond are usually professionals with good qualifications. Why should others be “forced” to retire in their 60s?

There is also no general agreement as to the age a person becomes “old” although Australia tends to use 60+ while generally regarding the “oldest old” as being either 80+ or 85+.The dream of an early retirement where one could devote oneself to the garden, bridge, golf or bowls with a slower and more relaxed life has been pushed to us since the 1970s at a time when life expectancy began to substantially increase.

Australians now aged over 65 can look forward to between 16 and 20 or more years of life. The idea that we were old or washed up by 65 should now be regarded as something from the past. Importantly the concept of what is “old” has changed radically over the last 25 years.

In Australia today the average retirement age for people aged over 45 is 55.3 but we are all tending to retire later. Of those who retired over the last five years, for example, the average age was 62.9. Today 60 year olds are beginning to behave like 40 year olds and perhaps 80 is now the new 60?

Imagine an Australia with fewer and fewer children, increasing life expectancy and more and more old people as well as a shrinking workforce and slow population growth. These are all critical issues that need to be addressed.

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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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