Wednesday, May 11, 2005

It's a granny gravy train - grab a ticket

The future sounds frightening. Before the budget, the Treasurer, Peter Costello, warned that working-age Australians would soon have to support twice as many Australians aged over 65 as they do today. The changes are due to hit us in the next 40 years. And they can't be avoided. As the Treasurer likes to repeatedly remind us, "demography is destiny".

So why do I find myself not feeling worried? In fact, why do I find myself feeling actually grateful?

I've put myself in the position of my three-year-old daughter.

Grace will be in the middle of her working life in 40 years' time, when the changes talked about by Peter Costello hit with full force. I used to be worried that my children wouldn't be able to find meaningful or secure work. Nearly all of the one million or so extra jobs created since 1990 have been casual or part-time. Uncertainty has become the new permanence.

But it won't be in 2045. By then, instead of there being five people of working age to support each one over the retirement age, there will be fewer than 2½. Workers will be in demand. Employers won't be able to treat them casually.

The current shortage of skilled workers provides a taste of what's in store... According to The Australian Financial Review, there are now four accountancy jobs on offer for every one applicant. As a result, it says, accountants in their mid-20s are being offered salaries of $100,000-plus, as well as cars, five weeks of annual leave, sign-on bonuses and subsidised gym memberships. It's the kind of future I want for my children.

It won't just be available to university graduates. If workers really do become scarce in the decades ahead, employers will start valuing them for what they can do rather than the pieces of paper they hold. Qualifications of dubious relevance will no longer be demanded as part of the selection process. Students will switch from four-year degrees to three-year ones or move straight into employment, picking up what they really need to know on the job or in employer-sponsored part-time training. The education that my daughter does get will be real and not part of a mind-numbing charade designed to get her a job.

The jobs will be better as well. What can be automated will be automated in an effort to economise on labour. My daughter's work is unlikely to be mind-numbing either.

And if ever she decides to leave the workforce for a while and come back in her 50s, she stands a good chance of success. Right now it can be employment suicide to admit that you are older than 50. Employers even try to screen you out over the phone.

A few years back, Lynne Bennington, a management specialist in Melbourne, employed actors to pretend to apply for real jobs. One in every four of the recruiters they phoned said unprompted they would prefer a younger rather than an older candidate. One in every five asked about the actor's age. Then, as now, it was illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of age.

My daughter will quite probably never have to suffer the humiliation and the collapse of self-esteem that comes from being unable to work at the age when many of us have the most to give.

Employers might even find my daughter increasingly attractive as she ages. By 2050 one in every three Australians will be older than 55. They are more likely to want to be trained by or buy things from someone they can relate to. They might even want to see the TV news read by a woman their own age.

And when Grace finally does retire she'll join an incredibly powerful club. One in every three Australian voters will be older than 65. They will be the most influential voting bloc since the entry into politics of organised labour. Most likely free of the traditional party loyalties that my generation grew up with, the aged of the future will be able to sell their votes to the highest bidder.

If the over-65s don't want to work, no politician is going to risk forcing them. If they want affordable, high-quality health care they'll get Medicare Gold and its successors extended and improved in election after election.

Growing up I felt ashamed and powerless about the state of the nursing homes in which several of my elderly aunts spent their final days. I have no such concerns about the nursing homes that will await my daughter. Caring for the aged will rightly come to be regarded as one of the most important things society can do.

Will we be able to afford it? The Treasurer has used the Productivity Commission's report on ageing to suggest that unless something changes in the next 40 years his tax take will have to increase by about 20 per cent. But the Productivity Commission itself has made it clear it's a bill we will be able to afford. It says that by then the real income of each Australian is likely to be roughly double what it is today. And it's a bill we mightn't have to pay at all.

Last year two Treasury economists published projections examining what would happen if over the next 20 years Australia was able to lift its workforce participation rate up to the level of the best-performing countries in the OECD, among them New Zealand. They found that most of the predicted extra tax bill would vanish.

It's research of which the Treasurer is well aware. That's why he's been keen to use what may be his final budget to do everything possible to get more Australians into work, be they single parents, people older than 55 or those who have retired early on the disability pension. He is one of the few politicians who realises just how important that is.

An aged Australia won't be bleak by any means. I am looking forward to it. Peter Costello is trying to make the transition as smooth as possible.