Living the good life - taking the long view

I am a member of a privileged lot, too young for rock'n'roll, too old for punk, a subset of the fabled and fabulously self-absorbed babyboomer generation. Not for us the rigours and hardships of the Great Depression; nor the horrors and sacrifices of all-encompassing world war. You could say we've had it ever so sweet.

We live in a land of plenty amid an age of excess. Like spoilt children to whom no-one has ever been quite able to say no, we are demanding: we like our creature comforts and we demand our consumer accessories. The good life is ours for the taking. We might work hard for it, but we expect it to be there.

We are all living longer. The life expectancy for New Zealanders continues to increase. A newborn girl can be expected to live, on average, 82.7 years; a male, 78.8 years, according to Statistics New Zealand figures released in August this year. The decade to 2011 will have seen an increase in the number of people 65 and over of about 100,000; between 2011 and 2021 the elderly population is expected to grow by about 200,000; and in the following 10 years by 230,000.

By 2051 it is expected there will be more than 1.14 million people 65 and over in this country, an increase of about 715,000, or 166% over the 1996 population. This will represent about 25% of the total population.

But we will not all be rugged up and drugged up in rest-homes; by gosh, no. Seventy is the new 50; 80 the new 60. We like to do things: to travel, to ski, to swim, to surf, to sail, to play golf and ride the rail trails of our dotage as if there was no such thing as growing old.

We are aided and abetted in this by our healthy lifestyles and medical interventions: new technology, new hips, new knees, new drugs, so that even when the flesh is weak, we can live the dream of eternal youth - and if we are over 65 expect to do much of it on the back of the taxpaying younger generations.

For here's the thing: despite an increase in life expectancy of 20 years or so during the last century we expect certain other things to stay the same - the entitlement age of national superannuation, for example, the age at which we can all put our feet up on the deck chair and draw the state pension.

Never mind that the ratio of plus-65s to the working age population was projected in 1999 to rise from the then 18 per 100 to 43 per 100 in 2051. To put it another way: at the end of the last century 100 working-age people were supporting 18 pensioners with their taxes. By midway through this century, 2051, that same 100 persons will be supporting 43 people in their deck chairs.

Now call me bone-headed, but even I can work out that, unless taxes are radically increased, state pensions become means-tested, or simply abolished - none of which I'm advocating, by the way - we are never going to square the budget on this.

Unless things change, an impossible burden will be imposed on the coming generations - generations already struggling in a low-wage economy to get out from under student loans, the precipitous cost of home ownership and debt incurred on acquiring what we, their parents and grandparents, took for granted.

What is to be done?

Well, we could all take a reality check.

We could admit that the quid pro quo for all that additional and sophisticated medical care, the longer lives, the spare parts and wonder drugs and the wonderfully enhanced lifestyles we enjoy as a result, living well beyond the expectations our grandparents and their parents had, is to remain in the workforce for a year or two longer.

A gradual rise in the age of entitlement to superannuation has been introduced in Australia and the United Kingdom and is being contemplated in other OECD countries. The main barrier to mandating the blindingly obvious in this country and in others is that it is considered ballot box suicide to touch pension entitlement ages.

That, presumably, is why Prime Minister John Key has ruled it out as National Party policy while he is in charge.

Conversely, the Labour Party may have introduced a graduated rise to 67 over several years because it felt it had nothing to lose. But the fact is, in so doing, it has had the courage to commit to the unavoidable - if the elderly are to have a state-funded safety net in retirement 20 years hence, and beyond into the middle years of this century.

Simon Cunliffe is deputy editor (news) at the Otago Daily Times.


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