The Work of Ageing

21.08.2009 | Lisa Watts and Andrew Cameron | Briefing 081  



[W]hen we are old it is too late to learn how to grow old. We must be taught how to live well when we are young if we are to know how to live well when we are old. (In fact, one of the great problems of our time is the assumption that we can and should live as if we will never grow old.) This will require the church to find ways to avoid isolating the young, the not so young and the elderly from one another. (Stanley Hauerwas, In Good Company, p. 185)

Australia is ageing. There are more older Australian now than ever before, and their numbers are rising. Does this prospect excite you, or worry you?

It seems to worry our government. An ageing populace creates many implications for public policy, and the purpose of this briefing is to touch upon some of these, particularly in relation to work. We will look at the work of those in aged care, and the work options (or not) for those who age.

But ‘Australia is ageing’ can become a statement open to new and intriguing possibilities. The Christian church knows something of these, as suggested by U.S. theologian Stanley Hauerwas (above). Each italicised section outlines some statistics and government responses, and we will then observe something that Christians know to be true about the aged. In this way, we will have a small ‘thought experiment’ about how ageing Australia could have some hidden bonuses.

1. Overview. It is easy to fall into the trap of viewing older people as one homogenous group, but in fact the statistics tell a different story. (For some ‘snapshots’ of our ageing population, see the appendix to this briefing). One common misconception about the aged according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare which is not supported by the data, is that the vast majority of older people are a burden on the community and are being ‘looked after’.

They report that the “overwhelming majority of older people live in private dwellings – only 6% live in non-private dwellings, which include aged care homes and hospitals. Even among those aged 85 years and over, 74% live in private dwellings. Almost one quarter of men aged 65-69 participate in the workforce, along with 13% of women in same age group. Despite having relatively low average levels of income, 24% of all older Australians were providing direct or indirect financial support for adult children or other relatives living outside the household”. Also, “Older Australians actively contribute to family and community life. Almost half of people aged 65-74 years (48%) provide unpaid assistance to someone outside their household, one-third (33%) provide volunteer services through an organization ...  and two thirds are in social and support groups”.

Christians continually see older people upholding churches and other communities through acts of service, with generosity, and by conversations that convey wisdom and build relationships. What if our society construed ageing in a new way? Rather than presenting ‘retirement’ as the opportunity for an endless holiday, what if we looked forward to our retirement as that new stage of life where we are freed to help others in a variety of new ways? (Many Christians think of their retirement as an ongoing opportunity for ‘ministry’—that is, for building up friends and neighbours in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ and of others.)

2. The aged care workforce. According to a report from the Productivity Commission, the evidence suggests that:

“... over the next 40 years there will be difficulties in securing an adequate supply of personnel with the necessary skills to support the delivery of aged care services. There is already a shortage of nurses in general, and of aged care workers in particular. On average, the age profile of the residential care workforce is markedly older than the health and community care workforce and the Australian labour force as a whole. Over the coming decades, the sector will need to replace a growing number of retiring workers”.

One of the biggest problems for employers in attracting and retaining staff is the low remuneration compared to other sectors.

Aged care also relies heavily on informal carers. However the availability of these carers is expected to decline over coming decades while demand increases, thus contributing to a large shortfall. Volunteers also play an important role in supporting the aged. It is expected that the potential pool of volunteers will more than double by 2050 but the aged care sector is likely to face increasing competition from other community activities.

Christian theology teaches that interdependence is our normal condition in human society. What if our society sought to banish all conceptions of care as merely a  ‘burden’ on carers? What if we vigorously resisted the notion that the ‘resources’ for care are ‘scarce’? What if this community affirmed the interdependence seen in aged care as an honourable condition, both to the carer and the cared, which clearly embodies the way humanity is to be with and for one another? What if we honoured these carers by paying the more and by speaking more highly of them?

3. Employment and older Australians. A recent report by National Seniors states that “painting a picture of mature age employment and unemployment isn’t simple or straightforward – the reality is often disguised”. For example:

Within this complexity, one thing stands out: older people are not participating fully in the labour market, and the reasons for this lower participation rate are disguised by underemployment and hidden unemployment.

Although mature age unemployment has been falling in recent years, it is set to rise significantly in the wake of the global recession. People 55 and over are likely to remain unemployed for three times longer than younger people. Barriers to mature age employment include:

Consider the role of information technology in the life of this group. While some 75% of 45-54yr olds use this technology, the number decreases to 60% of 55-64yr olds, then to 40% of 65-74 yr olds, then 18% of 75-84yr olds and 6% of those over 85. If we imagine that an older person is only ‘useful’ in a workforce to the extent that they can use this technology, then it constitutes a significant barrier to their employment.

According to the Bible, older people are often the repository of ‘wisdom’ and ‘maturity’. What if older people were not thought of simply as another ‘useful’ or ‘useless’ unit of labour, when compared to a technology-using or physically active younger person? What would it look like for employers to re-imagine the role of older workers? What could an organisation become, if older workers were set free to mentor younger workers? What if they were always invited to tell of the history of an organisation? What if we continued to learn from each older person all the past mistakes and successes that they remember taking place in their field?

4. Pension age rise to 67. In justifying the Government’s decision to raise the pension age in the May 2009 budget, Treasurer Wayne Swan said a decision was needed to keep pensions sustainable. "Currently we have five workers in Australia for every person aged 65 and over and by 2050, that will be 2½ … Life expectancy has increased by 23 years since the age pension came in … twice as many people are going on it for twice as long."

Many commentators agree that the move to raise the pension age along the lines of other OECD countries was necessary. But some are concerned about the effect on blue collar workers and the physical demands of working longer, and about the effect on older people who have difficulty remaining fully employed and would then have to rely on lower income supports for longer.

Should people access their superannuation only at aged pension age? Those in favour say it would be more equitable to do so; those against argue that earlier access to superannuation enables flexibility about when to retire.  Whether to raise the age at which people can access their superannuation will be a fiercely debated question when considered by Government later this year.

A Christian theology of politics entrusts judgments about justice and the common good to our leaders, who must learn and weigh much complex data. Christians hope and pray that they will have wisdom to arbitrate well. What would it look like to urge and encourage our leaders in this difficult task? How may we resist these issues of superannuation and pension age becoming reduced merely to each individual’s self-interest?

5. Further implications. We have caught the barest glimpse of some matters facing the nation when it comes to the aged. Interestingly, Christian churches are well placed to offer helpful contributions to these issues, even if we do not know about the technical details:

a)     A community of people in Christ is the natural venue to find a pool of willing, caring people who may be well-suited to aged care. We value this work, speak highly of it, and sometimes direct people to it (e.g. in the Anglican case, as many of our members work in Anglicare’s Chesalon and in Anglican Retirement Villages). How may churches better honour those who do this work and enable them to do it better? How might churches encourage others to engage in this kind of care?

b)     A community of people in Christ includes many employers. These people are often already very thoughtful about the welfare of those in their workplaces. What is their view of older people? Can these employers lead our society in reimagining new roles for the aged—roles that do not rely on physical strength or technical prowess, but which honour and learn from our elders’ wisdom and memory?

c)      A community of people in Christ knows what it is to care for the needy. Are our churches aware of the financial vulnerability of older people (particularly those living alone, relying on the pension and living in rental accommodation)? How is this awareness expressed? How can it be better expressed?

d)     A community of people in Christ naturally honours the contributions made by all members of this body, irrespective of their age. We already know and see many older people who contribute to the vibrant life of Christian churches. How may we ‘export’ this blessing to local communities?

e)     A community of people in Christ mourns death, and the debilitating aspects of ageing, as an alien intrusion in God’s good world. Its mature elders have internalised this truth, often knowing true hope and joy in Christ despite ageing bodies. How may this good news be taken to other older people in our communities, who are only able to think despairingly in terms of their ‘uselessness’, and who have been forced to regard themselves only as a ‘burden’ on others? How may they discover, with us, the joyful hope of Jesus’ resurrection?


Sources/Further Reading:

ABS, ‘A Picture of a nation’

ABS, ‘Population Ageing in NSW’

ABS, ‘Age Matters’

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, ‘Older Australia at a Glance’

Misha Schubert, ‘Push to lock up superannuation savings until 67,’ SMH 14/5/2009

Productivity Commission, ‘Trends in Aged Care Services: Some implications’

Lyn Arnold, ‘Which Aged care problem?’ Adelaide Review/APO 30/7/09

National Seniors, ‘Experience Works: The Mature Age Employment Challenge’

Professor Peter Whiteford (UNSW Social Policy Research Centre), interview on Life Matters, ABC radio 26/5/2009

Hauerwas, Stanley. In good company: the Church as polis. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995, p. 185


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