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Family Matters article

December 1991


The ageing of Australia is often regarded with trepidation as social planners try to implement policies that will adequately provide for the health and welfare of next century's elderly. But, argues the author, the potential advantages of there being more old people far outweigh the perceived drain on resources. He suggests the ageing population promises a spreading pool of competence and human help to be drawn upon with enthusiasm. Furthermore, rarely are the figures emphasised that show how centrally involved our elders are in supporting family life. What Australians do need to face, however, is a system riddled with outmoded structures, outmoded work regulations, outmoded retirement and superannuation provisions, inadequate community family support systems, and a media archaic in its social understanding, stuck in the cult of youth.

Ageing generally has a negative image, bound up with fear, stereotypes and alarmist projections about the implications of an ageing population. But as Australia, like most Western societies, grows older, there is likely to be a revolution against 'ageism' as 'the generation shift' follows on from the 'gender shift'.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, and even more so in the next century, the masses can look forward to a fit and productive old age. Old age therefore promises to be a rich resource for society but only if accompanied by a shift in attitude away from the negative images that consign elders to the scrapheap.

There are two sides to ageing: the external, socially- imposed notion of 'the aged' and the internal, existential discovery of ageing which rests heavily upon health and a continued sense of being in control of our lives. That sense of control develops out of our experience and the positive or negative feedback we get from others. Our sense of self is socially constructed, so our feelings about growing older are linked closely to external attitudes. In this, stereotypes can play a pervasive role.

I would argue that, existentially, this is no different from any other stage of life. People like to generalise about others, to label them, slot them into categories and assert their power over them. For example, we like to say that children cannot be analytical and cannot and should not have sexual feelings. Young people are placed in arbitrary settings called 'schools' where prescription rather than choice determines what is studied, where the emphasis is on rules rather than responsible decision-making, and where control rather than autonomy structures their lives.

Small wonder that children retreat into fantasy. Small wonder that teenagers rebel or put such energy into their world apart, of peer groups, rock music, drugs. The stereotypes no longer apply. Teenagers are still dependent on their parents, yet they earn part-time money. They do not marry until their late 20s yet they are sexually active from their early teens. They can't find jobs but we expect them to work hard in schools and colleges to make Australia the 'clever country'.

Adulthood is another increasingly meaningless term that denies the continuity and complexity of life itself. It used to be marked by rites of passage: leaving home to attend college, getting a job, getting laid, getting married ... Now some people go through nearly all of this and still behave like children; others pass some but not all the adult markers; others delay a few all their lives but are still seen as adults.

The attitudes that perpetuate the stereotypes could well be ripe for change. The elderly at the turn of the century be will those in middle age now, those who were the radical young adults of the sixties. Will they be a grey-haired version of the 'Me-Generation' or a new breed which could turn Australian society on its balding head?

Australia has plenty of lead time in which to plan for its future aged, although not everyone would agree with that assessment of the situation. In fact, there is an element of panic within government circles, especially about superannuation to reduce the cost of pensions, and about the fact that the 75-plus age group (only 4 per cent of the population) soak up 28 per cent of total health outlays.

By the year 2031, our population will be 26 million, with an average age of 42 (now 32), and one in five (20 per cent) will be older than 60 (about 15.5 per cent now). So some say the crisis will come in 2006, when the baby boomers turn 60! But I want to argue a more positive view.

Those making the decisions now in politics, industrial relations and commerce will be the pensioners of next century. They have it in their power to construct the circumstances of an older Australia in which overall dependency ratio costs will be balanced out by decreased public expenditure on a smaller proportion of children and the fruits of years of economic and philosophical emphasis on self-sufficiency and individual choice of lifestyle. We need to educate people to a healthier view, to develop a more actively caring society in which our elders have a positive role to play.

Ageing equals success, not doom

The demographic shift towards an older population is a sign of success and hope, not a cause for alarm. As Susan McDaniel points out for Canada (1988), an ageing society is an indication of success, not failure. This applies individually as well as collectively, particularly as Mark Twain says, when one considers the alternative.

Too often people assume the ageing of the population is due to improved medical care. Rather, as McDaniel (1988) says, it is an 'unexpected consequence of planned parenthood. The average age of the population has increased because of declining numbers of babies and young children. With fewer new entrants into the population, the centre point of the population shifts up; it becomes less bottom heavy (or young). There has been some minor increase in average (Canadian) age due to increased life expectancy, but it has not been a significant factor in population ageing' (p.9).

In Australia, 'since 1961, an additional five years has been added to the life of an average Australian. This is due to continued declines in infant mortality and, since 1971, to reduced mortality in the upper age groups' (National Population Council 1991, p.20). The Australian population, in fact, 'has been growing older for most of the last 100 years. In 1890 the median age was 20 years compared with 31.9 years in 1990 ... throughout the 1970s and 1980s the ageing process has accelerated ...' By 1990, 22.1 per cent of the population was aged newborn to 14 years (cf. 30.2 per cent in 1961) and the proportion aged over 65 years had increased from 8.5 per cent to 11.2 per cent (NPC 1991, p.24).

Certainly the baby boom generation will swell the ranks of the elderly in the early 21st Century. As this generation moves up the age pyramid, and if birth rates continue to decline, Australia's population will age rapidly, with the median age rising from 31.9 years in 1990 to between 37.8 and 44.1 years in 2031.

The population of working age (15 to 64) is projected to decline from 66.9 per cent in 1990 to between 60.7 per cent and 64.7 per cent in 2031. The number of people aged 80- plus will more than double from 0.4 million in 1990 to between 1 and 1.5 million, so there will be extra demands on health and welfare programs. But we are still (compared with Sweden, Finland, the United Kingdom or West Germany) a relatively young nation, and different attitudes could make this a positive future, not a bleak one.

It is easy to forget that the 'oldest' countries usually have the highest standards of living, the best medical care, the greatest industrial development and technology. An older population is a consequence of societal success and affluence. Fertility control reflects control over agriculture to ensure a food surplus; it reflects control over technology enabling industrial development; it reflects control over disease and premature death.

The ageing of our society is cause for celebration if it is recognised as an extension of opportunities. It means maintaining tremendous skills and resources with the wisdom of experience. It promises a spreading pool of competence and human help to be drawn upon with enthusiasm.

A different perspective

Ageing needs to be viewed from a different perspective, with attendant changes in expectations, attitudes and policies.

The first step is to reconsider the significance of 'elders' within the family. Popular images of the family are powerful because there are usually a few elements that match our own experience. We are told the extended family is dead, and accept the idea because our parents and grandparents most likely do not live with us in the same house.

But we forget that our parents did not live with their relatives either; we forget that we visit every now and then, do the shopping or gardening when needed, get on the phone constantly to check how things are going and report in for a bit of friendly advice.

There are alarmist stories about an ageing society increasing the dependency ratio, but this is countered by the lesser-publicised fact that the increased participation of women in the labour force has reduced the dependency ratio and is likely to continue to do so (NPC 1991, p.74). Continued immigration of young people can also help in this regard.

Also rarely emphasised are the figures that show how centrally involved our elders are in supporting family life. In Hal Kendig's 1983 study of the aged, it was found that older people were more likely to be providers than recipients of many kinds of support (Kendig 1986). Many grown offspring, especially separated sons, return to live with their parents. The aged are twice as likely to give money to their families as the reverse. Close to half the Sydney sample of old people had given practical help to others, from childminding to transport assistance. A quarter of older people serve as volunteers and serve longer hours in the social services (Kendig 1984).

Add to that the huge intergenerational exchange via inheritance and the fierce resistance to inheritance tax and you see the notion of aged 'dependency' in a very different light. Nor is it just an exchange of help; it is a strong emotional bond which has been described as an historically new form the modified extended family, based on 'intimacy at a distance' (Rosenmayr and Kockeis 1963, pp.410426).

The Institute's recent follow-up of its Family Formation Study found vast quantities of reciprocal intergenerational help. The study involved a national sample of people first interviewed in 1981 and again last year, in their family formation years the baby boom generation.

On the moral obligation to assist elders, 75 per cent agreed they should give financial help if needed, and 43 per cent would let ageing parents live with them if they wished. When asked what sorts of help they as adult offspring currently provide for their parents and in-laws, 89 per cent said emotional support, 72 per cent said doing things around the house, 74 per cent gave care during illness, 53 per cent organised shopping and bills, and 21 per cent gave direct financial assistance.

But assistance also flowed the other way; 76 per cent of of these elders mind the grandchildren, 76 per cent offered emotional support at a time of crisis, 61 per cent care for others when sick, 38 per cent help with renovating. Financial assistance from elders to their families was strong, too: 37 per cent for major purchases, 27 per cent for tertiary education, 33 per cent the deposit for a house or flat, 14 per cent money for travel and 12 per cent for bond money. Just who is dependent on whom?

Researchers have found that with increasing age, the net transfer of resources to the young in the family increases (Cheal, in Novak 1988).

Older people are also the pivot for much of the continuity of family culture, the link between past and present, 'essential for the mental health and stability of the nation' (Mead 1970). Old people are not useless, not roleless, not even undervalued in most families. They play a lively and powerful part in building and maintaining a shared culture that gives meaning to people's lives across the generations (Novak 1988).

Given the greater longevity of women, it may be assumed that an ageing Australia will mean a disproportionate abundance of old women. With better life expectancy for all, more couples will survive together into old age. They will live separately from their grown children, preferring 'intimacy at a distance' and the freedom to live as they wish while still giving and receiving social support.

Even when it comes to ill health, more than 60 per cent of the over 65 population have no limit on their functional ability and about 30 per cent report only some minor restriction to their activity (Novak 1988).

Thus future society is not likely to be dominated by a costly 'new class without function', but rather the best- educated, best-fed, best-housed, healthiest generation of Australians ever to have reached the sixth decile.

What Australia does face, however, is a system riddled with outmoded structures, outmoded work regulations, outmoded retirement and superannuation provisions, inadequate community-based family support systems, and a media archaic in its social understanding, stuck in the cult of youth and pushing an image of 'the aged' that denies their status as elders whose resources can and should be drawn upon.

Dignity of exchange

What is needed are clearer intergenerational structures and cooperative programs that will focus on the 'dignity of exchange', in which the obvious ability of most individuals to contribute is acknowledged as an integral part of the individual's receipt of services.

Not all old people are happily enfolded in the bosom of large accepting families. With death, divorce, poverty and lower birth rates, not all will have healthy partners into old age, grandchildren to love or offspring who continue to care. (The next generation of aged, now 4559, are, despite low birth rates, more likely than any other generation in history to have a surviving child.)

But these older people could be drawn into new social roles, as resource people for early childhood, as mentors for young people, as wise elders for the community at large. The volunteer grandparent is a new role for those too distant from their own families.

Though the desire for independent living is widespread among old people, the 'psychological hardiness', the sense of control, challenge and commitment that is necessary to survive and continue to grow are not equally present in every person (Seedsman 1988). Good support structures are necessary to help these people cope better, and new challenges such as those provided by the University of the Third Age, Gray Panthers or the sort of teaching-learning communities that bring elders, with their crafts and their caring, into schools, need to be created and extended (Edgar 1989, McDonald 1989)).

The dangers with a prevailing philosophy of individualism are, first, that it ignores the crucial interdependence of groups and individuals, and, second, for those who do not have the resources to back up that inner sense of control, it is the individual who is regarded as being at fault, not society. Combined with a narrow philosophy of utilitarianism, where only the 'useful' is 'good', the cultural view of ageing becomes either a psychological scrapheap or a frenetic scramble by the aged to prove they are still fit, active and able to contribute.

Some balance is required. Community structures that respect and make it possible to draw upon the wisdom, resources and experience of older people are needed, but not all old people have to be busy beavers in volunteer organisations, setting up cake stalls, playing bowls, painting, golfing, making jewellery and studying Middle-East history.

A new vision of productive ageing is needed, one that recognises the enormous contribution already being made via family support and cultural maintenance. We need a society that offers hope and structures varied opportunities for its elders to contribute to community life and to grow personally. Above all we need an existential activism as opposed to a fatalistic 'bad faith' which blames others or merely accepts ageing as a decline that is inevitable (de Beauvoir 1972).

The 'senior boom'

As the baby boom reaches old age and creates the 'senior boom', several things need to be kept in mind.

  • They will be better educated, healthier, wealthier, better housed and more self-sufficient than any previous generation of the elderly.
  • More of the future elderly will be members of four- and five-generation families, with wide networks of potential support, but this will be complicated by divorce, remarriage, gay and lesbian partnerships and increasing numbers of never-married people.
  • Better education and employment income will be an advantage but may be countered to some extent by the larger number of women in part-time jobs and small private businesses not covered by pensions or superannuation.
  • Prolonged life expectancy also prolongs our relationships. More parents and their offspring will thus share critical adult experiences: work, parenthood, retirement and widowhood.
  • More adult children are and will be involved in caring for frail parents and grandparents. Far from the myth that families used to care better, the future will mean greater caring. Women can expect to spend more years caring for an aged parent than for a dependent child. Will this be true also for men?
  • With childbirth concentrated on fewer years, siblings who are closer in age and think of themselves as peers may be more likely to share caregiving tasks than to expect the eldest child or the unmarried sister to care for the aged.
  • Smaller families also mean more intensive ties between children and their parents. This may well increase the sense of reciprocal obligation and responsibility.
  • While the world of the very old will be a world of women, greater longevity also makes marriage a greater long-term commitment. The average length of marriage at the turn of the century was 28 years before one spouse died. It is now more than 43 years (Furstenberg et al, 1983).
  • Divorce and remarriage will reshape the lives of the old. Women survive singlehood more resourcefully than men, who tend to lose contact with children and therefore family networks. Many will devote lots of effort to building new stepfamilies, only to find they split up too. Male involvement across generations may thus weaken and their children's sense of responsibility towards men whom they barely know may well decrease. A contrasting trend is for older men to attach themselves to another woman who will care for them. The question is how these changes will affect the development of policies for the care of the frail elderly (Hooyman and Kiyak 1988, p.610).
  • Another downside is the triple burden on the 'woman in the middle' (Brody 1985). In spite of greater labour force participation by women, they still carry the principal load for household work and child care. The 'superwoman squeeze' (Friedan 1981) is being increasingly resented. There is little reason to expect that men will take over more of the responsibility for caring for the aged, yet already overburdened women are being told that more, not less, of the caring should be a private rather than public responsibility. This double bind has to be faced; women cannot be expected to earn an income as well as carry the burden of care. Real community partnerships of care have to be created.
  • Family obligations need some reassertion so the younger generations no longer assume parents owe them; but so too is needed a reassertion that care is a public obligation as well and cannot be completely privatised. On the evidence, families are already doing their share of caring for their elders; it is less apparent that governments are in terms of relief care, although expenditure on aged pensions and health care is very large.
  • Early retirement, but more especially compulsory retirement, is absurd. A 'clever country' needs wisdom, not just innovation. As retirement moves closer to 20 per cent of adult life, we have to realise that it does not end the need for involvement in wider society. New intergenerational links that go beyond immediate family ties must be developed to maintain society-wide that 'dignity of exchange' referred to earlier.

Much of this should involve new workplace arrangements, retraining, job sharing, part-time work and so on. A 'gliding out' plan of phased retirement is a better way to go than being suddenly dumped. Databanks of retiree skills could ease the transition from full to part-time work to retirement. The outdated divisions between education for the young, employment for the middle-aged, retirement for the old, must be reconsidered as Australia moves towards the Third Age (Lazlett 1989).

Greater flexibility in pacing careers would help to break down the rigidity and stereotyping of age classification in our society. Men as well as women could then better integrate their work and family lives and society as a whole would be better served.

  • Societal attitudes must change. The meaning of 'productivity' must be redefined to include more than employment. A more humanising approach is to ask how human potential can be developed and used in old age as part of a productive society. As already stated, not all of our elders want to be or should be 'busy beavers'; many prefer to retire and enjoy their leisure in their own way.

But the vitality of the older population must be recognised out of a need to involve their skills and wisdom, through both paid and unpaid positions, in enriching our society (Hooyman and Kiyak 1988, pp.613; Butler and Gleason 1985). Australia might then move beyond the artificially framed policy debate about young and old competing for resources; beyond the 'new ageism' (Kalish 1979) and reduce the dependency, both real and perceived, of older people.

This article was adapted from Dr Edgar's Murdoch Memorial Lecture, delivered on Tuesday 17 September 1991 at Murdoch University in Perth.


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