Learning to deal with the middle age spread

THE big bulge is here and if you’re not part of the pattern then you better get out of the way.

The baby boomers, the single biggest demographic across the population spread in Australia, are hitting middle age and it’s forcing major industries to rethink their business to capture a share of this dominant force.

Aged care and superannuation have gathered political momentum as the politicians recognise the voting power of this massive group.

The June 2001 population figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveal that the median age of Australians has increased by 5.8 years over the past two decades.

Since June 1981, the growth in the number of children aged up to 14 years has increased by 5 per cent.

Over the same period the sector of the population aged between 15 and 64 years has risen by 34 per cent.

But it’s the group of Australians aged over 65 that has shown the most staggering growth.

Since 1981, the number of people aged 65 years and more has increased by 65 per cent, while those aged over 85 per cent has increased by 156 per cent.

The ageing population has major ramifications for a number of key industries, including healthcare, superannuation and property.

A big group of aging citizens is likely to put pressure on health care services, but the baby boomers are very different to their counterparts of a generation earlier.

They’re fitter and have come to expect a lot more from their retirement years.

University of Western Australia regional development honorary research fellow Stewart Houghton said the population bulge created by the baby boomers had been very simple for authorities to predict.

“It’s a gradual process and one that ought to be possible for agencies to cope with, provided they’ve got sufficient funding,” Mr Houghton said.

The health industry, which is already struggling to service the current population, is likely to suffer increased pressure. A shortage of nursing homes has left a number of elderly patients in hospital beds while government agencies seek to find placements in care facilities.

Brightwater chief executive officer Dr Penny Flett has a keen understanding of the importance of planning for the future.

“I feel fairly passionate about it because I’m a baby boomer myself. Industry ought to be preparing itself for this shift,” she said.

“I think people are beginning to realise the demographic shift is more than just numbers.

“Anyone can sprout the numbers but within them there’s this huge shift – within 40 years one in four people will be aged 65 years or over.”

Dr Flett is concerned that the community needs to consider what life will be like in the future, and balance this with how it expects to live.

The impact on the property market is obvious – a larger aged population will need a larger selection of retirement style developments. Or will they?

Currently, only 5 per cent of the population live in nursing homes, and if you extend that to include hostels with a lower level of care the figure is only pushed out to 8 per cent.

UWA public health associate professor Michael Hobbs said that, to a large extent, the provision of health services was closely aligned to the age of a population.

“There are two issues and the first is the extension of life and the proportion of people who are going to become older,” Mr Hobbs said.

“Without any change in life expectancy we expect to see more older people.

“Next question is whether they’ll be healthier or less healthy.”

Numerous studies have pointed to the fact that older people are spending less time in hospital.

“This is an indication of a compression of morbidity. In getting to older age, people are having more disease-free period,” Mr Hobbs said.

It’s not just the health industry that will undergo some changes. The departure of a big group of workers from the labour force will open up new opportunities.

However, a smaller group of workers will have to support a big group of retirees.

The simple conclusion analysts are drawing from this is that the baby boomers will increase pressure to push up tax to support them.

The big bulge is not just about capitalising on the business opportunities offered by this new leisure class, there might be costs that the property sector and the health industry haven’t even considered yet.

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