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Demographic changes shrink the generation gap distribution

In Queensland by 2020 life expectancy will increase – from 77 years to 81 years for men, and from 82 years to 85 years for women. What are the implications for us as a country and as a state when a greater proportion of our population is older? Social commentator and sociologist, Hugh Mackay, considers the effects of this different age distribution.

AT PRESENT only 14 percent of the population is over the age of 65. If the birth rate stays where it is – and, in spite of the current upwards blip, it may well go even lower – and if life expectancy also remains stable, then by the time today’s youngsters reach their middle years, about 25 percent of the population will be over 65.

That’s a very different kind of society from the one we’ve been used to for the past 60 years, ever since the post-war baby boom rewrote our population statistics.

Think of the implications for aged-care medicine, nursing, housing and welfare. Think of the demand for leisure and recreation activities for the increasingly hale and hearty elderly, and the changing demand for media content to reflect their interests – especially their interest in the past which will fuel an unprecedented nostalgia boom.

Think of the impact on retailing, entertainment, transport and community services. Think of all the special provisions likely to be needed for a population that is so strongly skewed to the older end of the spectrum, and then think about who’s going to pay for it all.

Of course, many of the over-65s will be powering on in the workforce, happily reminding us and each other that since 60 was the new 50, it follows that 70 will be the new 60.

And so it will be: in terms of their health, their fitness, their diet, their dress, their style, their propensity to travel, their life expectancy and their outlook on life, this will be the ‘youngest’ cohort of over-65s we’ve ever seen.

And what diet and exercise don’t achieve, Botox, collagen and cosmetic surgery will. They’ll be determined to look as young as they feel. The baby boomers are already leading the way, establishing a trend that will be eagerly followed by the next generation, and the next.

‘Retirement’ is being dropped from the vocabulary of ageing in favour of ‘refocusing’ and those who choose to work on – whether full-time or part-time, paid or unpaid – may well regard structured work as a life-prolonging, dementia-postponing pursuit that gives them structure, stimulation, satisfaction and a human herd to belong to, even if their marriages have dissolved and their families scattered.

Our ageing society may well turn out to be a very lively place, with such a high proportion of elderly people who are healthier, better educated, more widely travelled and more engaged in society than was typical of older people in the past.

From the so-called ‘grey nomads’ who pack up their homes and take to the road in an extended caravan tour of the country to the enthusiastic participants in the University of the Third Age, this will be a more mobile, more inquisitive, more restless generation of over-65s than we are accustomed to.

‘Tribal elders’ will be a highly visible, vigorous and participative segment of the population.

As a result there may well be a more caring and respectful attitude towards older people, and in spite of the continuing rapid rate of technological change and innovation, there will still be a huge bank of experience among the over-65s for our society to draw on.

When a child born in 2009 turns 17, the youngest baby boomers will be 65. By then, 20 may well be the new 30, given the hothouse development of the rising generation, and 65 will have become the new 50.

A chronological gap of 45 years may start to feel more like a socio-cultural gap of only 20 years. Perhaps those infamous generation gaps are actually shrinking.

From Advance Australia Where: How we’ve changed, why we’ve changed and what will happen next by Hugh Mackay. Reproduced with permission in March 2009 Journey