14 April 2007

Old and new views of ageing

Myra Hamilton in The Age writes about two contrasting attitudes to an ageing population:

The Howard Government's Intergenerational Report found that the ageing of the population does not constitute a crisis but rather a fairly manageable transition.

Despite this, a number of commentators continue to insist that the age pension claims of a large cohort of boomers will put unsustainable pressure on government finances and place an intolerable burden on younger generations.


In reality, most of them will rely on the full or part age pension in retirement, but not through any fault of their own. When they entered the workforce, the age pension was the predominant form of funding and most of their parents' generation relied on the pension.

Only in 1992, halfway through their working lives, was compulsory superannuation introduced. After years of being told that the state would look after them while they would fund the retirement of the generations ahead of them, boomers were suddenly expected to pay for their own retirement.

Collective risk pooling through the welfare state, once a symbol of social solidarity, has become for some commentators "generational theft on a massive scale". But those who declare that older people are a burden on society and a drain on the public purse are ripping up the intergenerational contract and setting "productive workers" against "burdensome retirees". They themselves are creating the intergenerational war.

The terms of the debate in Australia have been imported from the United States, where for years some have predicted an "intergenerational Armageddon". The more extreme elements of this movement have challenged not only the citizenship of older Americans but their right to life.

One biomedical ethicist, Daniel Callahan, has identified three goals for any ageing society: to stop funding medical interventions that bring only marginal gains to the old; to prevail on the old to shift their priorities from their own welfare to that of younger generations; and to persuade older people to accept death as a condition of life, at least for the sake of others.

In other words, older citizens should sacrifice their lives rather than use up expensive medical resources at the expense of younger, more deserving, generations.

That's some generational payback. The generational warmongers seem to believe that we don't have enough social division in Australia.

I've not previously heard of, let alone read anything by, Callahan, who has written a lot during a long professional career, so am reluctant to pass judgment, as Ms Hamilton seems to do. It won't surprise me to see intergenerational tensions increase in coming years as aged people and the amount of resources required to sustain their lives increasingly concern, perplex or irritate the younger generations who have grown up in an environment which more and more measures people's worth by how much they earn, and what they spend it on, rather that on recognising the non-economic value of life.

I'll add finding out more about him and his views to my To Do list. For more about him see here. His CV is also available online.

Of course, concern about ageing dates back a long way. In Part Three of Gulliver's Travels Swift depicts the struldbrugs, people who are immortal but who continue to age:

When they came to fourscore years, which is reckoned the extremity of living in this country, they had not only all the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying. They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grandchildren...The least miserable among them appear to be those who turn to dotage, and entirely lose their memories; these meet with more pity and assistance, because they want many bad qualities which abound in others


"As soon as they have completed the term of eighty years, they are looked on as dead in law; their heirs immediately succeed to their estates; only a small pittance is reserved for their support; and the poor ones are maintained at the public charge. After that period, they are held incapable of any employment of trust or profit; they cannot purchase lands, or take leases; neither are they allowed to be witnesses in any cause, either civil or criminal, not even for the decision of meers and bounds.

"At ninety, they lose their teeth and hair; they have at that age no distinction of taste, but eat and drink whatever they can get, without relish or appetite. The diseases they were subject to still continue, without increasing or diminishing. In talking, they forget the common appellation of things, and the names of persons, even of those who are their nearest friends and relations. For the same reason, they never can amuse themselves with reading, because their memory will not serve to carry them from the beginning of a sentence to the end; and by this defect, they are deprived of the only entertainment whereof they might otherwise be capable.

[Gulliver's Travels Part III Chapter 10].

Food for thought?

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