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Shifting beliefs about ageing

Discrimination Age Discrimination

Shifting beliefs about ageing
Old Colonists’ Association of Victoria
Conversations for Change: ‘Let’s Retire Retirement’

(Check against delivery)

22 June 2018



Thank you to Phillip Wohlers for that introduction and to the Old Colonists’ Association of Victoria for inviting me to deliver the second Conversations for Change—‘Let’s Retire Retirement’.

I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and to pay respect to their elders past and present.

I am grateful to be with you today to talk about how we can begin to shift how people feel about the concept of ageing.

Background – gerontology and ageing advocacy

In the late 1970s and early 80s, I was teaching health science students and becoming more and more interested in the study of gerontology. I was also acutely aware and increasingly unsettled by the fact that the baby boomers were reaching the peak of their adult lives, and that policies were not in place to deal with the impending increase in the number of older people that would occur in the ensuing 40 or so years.

This concern led me to pursue an interest in gerontology, to co-develop the first gerontology post-graduate diploma in Victoria, and to introduce courses in gerontology and life cycle development into the undergraduate health science courses. There was a degree of resistance to this and I remember being questioned by the clinicians in physio, OT, speech and the other departments - ‘Why gerontology? We already have geriatrics’. And my response was, ‘why child psychology and early childhood development when we already have paediatrics? These students need to know about the well elderly not just well children!’

These battles to promote issues affecting older Australians would prove to be ongoing when I entered the political arena, particularly in the Senate. I was concerned that people, especially women, were being forced to retire at 65, when many had not saved enough for retirement or could clearly benefit from extending their working years.

In 1990, the Minister for Social Security at the time had given an undertaking to remove age discrimination from all existing federal legislation. Nothing was done.

Frustrated with this climate of inaction and prompted by the numerous representations I had received from public servants and statutory office holders, who were being forced to retire at 65, I introduced a private member’s bill into the Senate in 1992 to abolish compulsory retirement in the Australian Public Service.

In 1992, the Government response to the House of Representatives Standing Committee for Long Term Strategies Report gave in principle support to ending compulsory age retirement. This was not acted on.

In 1993, Senator Bolkus indicated that the Government intended to act but the Attorney General’s Department was working towards a comprehensive age discrimination policy. So we waited.

In 1994, The McLeod Report reviewing the Public Service Act concluded that compulsory retirement should be excluded from the revised Act. Result – still no action.

We had an election in 1993, my 1992 bill lapsed, and I resubmitted it in 1995. It was not brought forward by the then Government for debate.

I was given the task of developing the Government’s preparations for the 1999 International Year of Older Persons. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I lobbied hard for us to remove the compulsory retirement age for Commonwealth Public Servants and Statutory Officeholders. The former was achieved in 1999 and the latter in 2001. The Age Discrimination Act took a little longer and was enacted in 2004.

In my advocacy, lectures and political battles involving the affairs of older people over the years, I have had in mind that the concerns of those older people would one day become mine and that of the enormous cohort of baby boomers born after World War II. Selfinterest is always a good motivator!

Attitudes to ageing

As Australians live longer, healthier lives, there is an ever increasing opportunity to harness the contributions of older people across all segments of our society. For example, a mere three per cent increase in workforce participation by the over 55s would generate a $33 billion annual boost to the national economy.[1]

It seems to me, however, that as a society we are not capitalising on this opportunity. Why is this?

Despite the good work being done, negative stereotypes about older people remain prevalent in our community. These stereotypes can serve as barriers to an older person’s full participation in life.

We can’t underestimate what a profound effect this can have on people. It can impact their employment, finances, health and their overall enjoyment of life, and sense of satisfaction.

These stereotypes can be so insidious that they come to be internalised and held by the older person themselves. They can lead people to doubt their own abilities and set low expectations for themselves—and so the self-fulfilling prophecy goes.

Collectively, we must foster a dialogue about the meaningful contributions that can be made to society by older people.

Importantly, we need to shift the narrative about Australia’s ageing population being a ‘burden’ on society, and that it is a ‘problem’ to be fixed. This concept is outdated and patently untrue, and only perpetuates ageism.

Stanford professor of psychology Laura Carstensen’s book, A Long Bright Future, reminds us that many aspects of ageing - such as retirement - are social constructs and so, if some of these original concepts are no longer applicable, we can and should change them.[2] We can and should apply some creativity to imagine older lives that are more satisfying, sustainable and enjoyable than is the case for many people today.

The focus of the World Health Organisation’s work on ageing until 2030 is the concept of ‘Healthy Ageing’, which is defined to mean the ‘process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing in older age’.[3] This means that a person should be able to be and do what they value, regardless of age—this includes contributing to society, maintaining meaningful relationships, and making their own decisions.

The Benevolent Society is doing fantastic work in building a national advocacy campaign, EveryAGE Counts. The campaign aims to drive positive change in economic, social, health and civic participation outcomes.[4]

This is a long term campaign to change negative attitudes towards ageing in Australia, which I will be supporting to develop. The campaign will launch later this year. You can go online and join the campaign.[5]\

My advocacy priorities

I have an absolute aversion to good solid reports ending up in the graveyard of good intentions.

Therefore I have made it my goal to advance as far as possible, the implementation of sensible recommendations and practical solutions in relation to three main topics.

First, elder abuse.

Elder abuse can come in a variety of forms with financial abuse appearing to be the most common.[6]

It is a complex and multi-layered problem. Most perpetrators are close family members such as sons and daughters.[7]

As the National Australian Research Institute highlighted in its research, while many victims wanted to be free from abuse and gain recompense for financial losses, they also expressed concern for the perpetrator and wanted them to receive appropriate drug, gambling, alcohol, mental health or other treatments and supports.[8]

The Australian Law Reform Commission recently released its findings and recommendations following a 15-month national inquiry into elder abuse. The report, Elder Abuse - A National Legal Response, was commissioned by the Australian Government and is the result of 117 national stakeholder meetings and more than 450 submissions.[9]

The Eastern Community Legal Centre in Victoria, had over 100 nurses, police, Aged Care Assessment Teams, carers etc. come together to discuss and contribute to a joint submission to the law reform discussion paper of draft recommendations.

The Victorian government has recently funded 9 more Elder Abuse Prevention Networks, to help raise awareness and put policies into action to prevent elder abuse.

One of the banks, I won’t mention which one!, have developed a booklet to assist older people to protect themselves from financial abuse and scams – Safe and Savvy – available on line and will be in the branches in mid July.

I am absolutely determined that the voices and efforts of those who have contributed to this inquiry do not go to waste. I know that the Government is already working on implementation of the report including the development of a National Plan and prevalence study. I will continue to advocate and work with governments and stakeholders to ensure that as many of the recommendations are implemented as possible.

Second, Willing to Work.

The Commission’s Willing to Work report, published in 2016, makes it clear that many older Australians are willing and able to work but are prevented from doing so by age discrimination and lack of positive policies and supports.

In light of our ageing population, higher workforce participation of older people is both a demographic and economic imperative. It is also good for business.

I have been speaking with relevant Ministers and their departments about recommendations relevant to their portfolio.

I attended a Roundtable Discussion some time ago with senior representatives from several government departments to explore ways to enhance the workforce participation of older Australians and possible areas of collaboration. I was pleased to see funding allocated in the 2018/19 Budget for a range of measures to help older Australians to continue working for as long as they want, including:

  • rolling out the ‘Skills checkpoint for Older Workers’ program, and
  • expanding the ‘Entrepreneurship Facilitators’ program to support mature age entrepreneurs.[10]

I have also been approaching industry and peak bodies about the benefits of older workers including encouraging the development of Continuing Professional Development courses or training for Human Resources and managers.

Thirdly, older women and homelessness.

Our nation faces a potential tsunami of older women at risk of homelessness.

In just 5 years, the number of older homeless women has increased by over 30% to nearly 7,000 in 2016.[11]

We have an ageing population, a high cost of housing and significant variations in wealth accumulation between men and women across their lifetimes. Without action the number of women experiencing and at risk of homeless will continue to rise.

Older women’s incomes and work cycles are different from those of men. Many women face old age renting and with insufficient superannuation, having been in and out of the workforce over the course of their lives. On average, women retire with only $157,000 in super savings, compared to $270,000 for men.[12]

Additionally, an unexpected crisis – the death of a spouse or divorce – can make women extremely vulnerable to homelessness. And it can force older women into social housing, which is under significant pressure already.

There is a range of solutions—from group housing models, to ethical investment frameworks—which can help.

Doorway, a program operated by not-for-profit Wellways, helps people experiencing mental health issues who are homeless or at risk of homelessness to secure and sustain a home within the private rental market. An independent evaluation found that after 18 months the majority of participants achieved stable and secure private rental accommodation for the first time in their lives. I have discussed with Wellways the possibility of adapting the model for older women.

Another example is a pilot being undertaken by Women’s Property Initiative. Women with assets of around $100,000–$300,000 invest in a small unit and pay low rent while they live there, securing their housing arrangement and reducing the need to dip into savings for expenses such as rent.

These, and other emerging models, could be adapted and scaled to help address a range of housing issues, including for older women.


Everyone has a role to play in transforming the way people think about growing older, whether you are an older person now or you will be in the future.
Clearly, businesses and organisations need to ensure that their policies and practices do not discriminate against older people. But it is also the informal everyday action that will make a difference— dispel myths about older people when you see them, challenge stereotypes. Be an advocate for older people’s abilities and with this persistency people will start to think differently about ageing.

[1] Deloitte Access Economics, Increasing participation among older workers: the grey army advances (25 July 2012). At (viewed 1 June 2018).

[2] Laura Carstensen, A Long Bright Future (Perseus Books, 2011).

[3] World Health Organisation, ‘What is healthy ageing’ At (viewed 11 June 2018).

[4] The Benevolent Society, ‘EveryAGE Counts campaign’. At (viewed 21 June 2018).

[5] See

[6] National Ageing Research Institute, Profile of elder abuse in Victoria: analysis of data about people seeking help from Seniors Rights Victoria, Summary Report June 2015. At (viewed 15 June 2018).

[7] National Ageing Research Institute, Profile of elder abuse in Victoria: analysis of data about people seeking help from Seniors Rights Victoria, Summary Report June 2015. At (viewed 15 June 2018).

[8] National Ageing Research Institute, The Older Person’s Experience: Outcomes of Interventions into Elder Abuse, 2016. At (viewed 15 June 2018).

[9] Australian Law Reform Commission report, Elder Abuse – A National Legal Response (ALRC Report 131) June 2018. At (viewed 22 June 2018).

[10] Budget 2018-19, ‘More choices for a longer life’. At (viewed 20 June 2018).

[11] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census of Population and Housing: Estimating homelessness, 2016 ABS cat no 2049.0 (14 March 2018). At (viewed 10 May 2018).

[12] Ross Clare, Director of Research, Superannuation account balances by age and gender (October 2017) The Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia Limited (ASFA). At (viewed 10 May 2018).

Dr Kay Patterson, Age Discrimination Commissioner