This is the fifth in a series of essays based on data from the 2006 census, produced in cooperation with the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

For over 20 years, the popular press has been trumpeting the pending and imminent disaster that is ‘the ageing of the Australian population’. We are told that our hospitals are filling up with ‘sick old people’, the demand for aged care services will drain resources from all other areas of social service, and the need to pay pensions (or repay investments in superannuation) will bring the nation to its knees. In particular, the ageing of the ‘baby boomer’ generation is portrayed as something akin to a horror movie, as this weighty ‘bulge’ in the population pyramid effectively drains all resources from an ageing and increasingly over-burdened society. This is the view of population ageing which abounds in the media, in public perception, and infiltrates government policy and academic treatises alike. This near phobia about the ageing of the population has become a phenomenon in itself—Australians beware, the ageing apocalypse is nigh!

According to the Australian Census of 2006, there are 3,602,500 people aged 60 and over, and 727,300 aged 80 and over. This amounts to 18% and 4% of the Australian population respectively. Looking forward, by 2026 current projections indicate there will be 6,616,000 people aged 60 and over and 1,362,000 people aged 80 and over; in percentage terms that equates to 24% and 5%. Looking back to 1986, these numbers and percentages were smaller—2,334,800 people aged 60 and over (15% of Australians) and 307,500 people aged over 80 (2%). And if you think only a very few people live to be 100, then you should know that there were 2,440 centenarians in Australia in 2006 and it is projected that there will be 15,883 in 2026.

Table 1. Numbers and percentages of the total population for older people, past, present and future
1986 2006 2026
60 and over 2,334,800(15%) 3,602,500 (18%) 6,616,000(24%)
80 and over 307,500(2%) 727,300(4%) 1,362,000(5%)

It is easy to think of this ‘increasing number of the aged’ as a homogenous mass, draining the life force from Australian society – easy, but not necessarily accurate. Many of these people aged 60 and over are in the paid workforce and many are not; many were born in Australia and many were not; many are parents, grandparents and great grandparents and some are not. A small number are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, most are not. Many care for their grandchildren, and for people with disabilities, provide financial support or household assistance to family members, and together they drive a key part of the volunteer workforce in our country. Some – fewer than you may think – are in nursing homes, some suffer disabilities of varying degrees, some live with chronic illnesses and some maintain high levels of health and fitness. Many depend on the pension for their main source of income, although an increasing number have superannuation funds. Most own their own homes, some rent and a small number are homeless.

There are more of them than before, and that is because of better nutrition, better living conditions, a relatively safe society, better public health and better medical care. They are all different people with different stories; but they shared one thing on the night of the Australian Census—they were all alive. If an ageing society is a difficult and undesirable burden to bear, then we must think about ways to have fewer older people. If we do not want to have a society with a growing number of older people, then we must have poorer nutrition, poorer public health, poorer living standards… or else we must withdraw medical care from older people and leave them to die. And if we do withdraw medical care on the basis of age, then we must decide the age at which people should be left to die—should that be 75, or 80 or 85? There is also the option, of course, that we could take a more active position, adopting a selective culling once people reach the age of, say, 80. Perhaps grandchildren and children could be asked to choose the parent (grandparent) whose life they would like to preserve, and the one who should be ‘let go’, to adopt an appropriate euphemism. And as for those who are childless… well, I daresay the answer is obvious.

If I have painted this picture well, you should be experiencing righteous indignation at this point at the dehumanisation of part of our population, the disregard for the value of human life, and the impact on families and friends of such a proposal. If on the other hand, I have unintentionally convinced you that this is a viable future alternative, I recommend you immediately cease reading this essay and progress to a copy of Jonathan Swift’s essay entitled ‘A Modest Proposal’, published in 1729, in which he proposes the eating of children as a solution to the severe famine facing Ireland at that time.

The paradox of ‘population ageing’ is the dilemma of understanding how it can be such a bad thing for a society, but such a good thing for the individual. No one person wants to die just because he or she is 60 or 70 or 80 or even 90, if his or her quality of life is acceptable. No family member wants a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, brother or sister to die for that reason either. Living longer is a triumph of our society for the individual; but we are yet to solve the problem of how to make living longer become—and to have society see it as—a triumph for our society as a whole.

There are, I am pleased to say, a number of contemporary writers on ageing who do not subscribe to the model of ‘apocalyptic ageing’ articulated above. Over twenty years ago, Peter Laslett set out the concept of a ‘third age’ of life as a period of personal fulfilment, and since then the concepts of ‘positive’ and productive’ ageing have appeared with increasing frequency in academic and policy documents. The recent volume edited by Allan Borowski and his colleagues, for example, demonstrates an increasing (and very welcome) emphasis on how society, as well as the individual, might change and respond to ‘population ageing’. In order to understand what those changes could and should be, it is important to understand the characteristics of older people now, and how those characteristics have changed in the past and will change in the future. The 2006 Australian Census is a crucial platform from which to address this task.

About the author

Professor Diane Gibson joined the University of Canberra as Dean of the Faculty of Health in 2008. She was previously a Group Head at the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), where she established a high profile work program in ageing and aged care, managed numerous national data development and statistical analysis projects, and initiated ground breaking work in statistical linkage of community services data sets. She is a former Editor-in-Chief of the Australasian Journal on Ageing, author and editor of the widely used Older Australia at a Glance and the author of Aged Care: Old Policies, New Problems. Professor Gibson is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.