Australia's Demographic Challenges
© Commonwealth of Australia 2004
ISBN 0 642 74230 8
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Improving the capacity for work
Supporting more flexible work options
Appendix – the economic implications of an ageing population
The policy challenge
So what are the choices?
The Australian Government’s Intergenerational Report (IGR) projects that over the next 40 years, the proportion of the population aged over 65 years will almost double to around 25 per cent. At the same time, growth in the population of traditional workforce age — 15 to 64 — is expected to slow to almost zero.
This will have a profound effect on the economy and, potentially, on our living standards. The recent stagnation of the Japanese economy has been at least partly driven by its rapidly ageing population, and provides a warning to Australia to start preparing for these issues now.
Over time, the ageing of our population will result in a greater demand for Age Pensions and health and aged care spending. And the need to keep up with changing technology and community expectations of accessing the most advanced diagnostic tests and medical treatments is putting ever increasing demands on health spending. The IGR projects that these pressures will continue.
The IGR puts together all of these major expenditure factors — health, aged care, pensions and education — and projects that spending by the Australian Government will exceed the amount it raises in taxes by around 5 per cent of GDP by 2041-42. To put this into perspective, the 2003-04 forecast is for a surplus of $4.6 billion. A budget deficit of 5 per cent of GDP would mean that for 2003-04 the deficit would be around $40 billion.
The Government’s preferred solution to this challenge is to implement policies designed to grow the economy more quickly. A larger economy will provide us with higher incomes, improved living standards and better enable us to meet the costs associated with our ageing population. Further detail on these issues is contained in the Appendix.
The best way to achieve higher economic growth is via increases in labour force participation and productivity.
Australia has recently enjoyed very strong productivity growth. To maintain this performance into the future we will need to continue with reforms that free-up economic activity, enhance labour market flexibility, strengthen competition, and continue to develop a more innovative and dynamic society. The gains we can make from improving productivity growth are, over the longer term, virtually unlimited. But that is not to say the task will be easy. It will also need to be accompanied by continuing sound fiscal policy and maintaining a low inflation economy.
We also have considerable potential to improve our labour force participation rates. Participating in the workforce makes people wealthier during their lives, and also means that they have higher incomes in retirement. There is also evidence that those who participate are, in general, healthier than those who do not.
Labour force participation rates are influenced by individual choices and respond to incentives and barriers. Amongst OECD countries, Australia’s total participation rate ranked twelfth in 2002, suggesting we have significant potential to improve participation both in the short and medium term (Chart 1). For men aged 60 to 64, Australian participation rates ranked fourteenth. Equally, while women’s participation has increased over the last 20 years, including for the mature aged, these increases were consistent with the trend across most other OECD countries, and Australia remained in the middle of the OECD for this group.
Chart 1: OECD Total Participation Rates 2002
Significant improvements in participation are possible, and will benefit those who currently are unable to find employment. The government has identified a number of opportunities to improve participation:
- improvements in the capacity for work, through better health and education
- better incentives for work
- improved flexibility in the workplace.
Our recent record of economic reform means that by comparison with other countries, which have even larger problems, Australia is among the countries best placed to deal with an ageing population. The most important thing is that we start to prepare for these changes now. In some cases this will not be easy. We must remember that many of the benefits enjoyed by Australians today are the outcomes of the sacrifices and investments of earlier generations. So too the prosperity of future generations depends upon the decisions we make today.
Equity and fairness across generations – a key building block for increasing the prosperity of nations over time — is particularly important in times of major demographic change, when the risks are higher.
By making wise investments in infrastructure, services and programs, and maintaining prudent fiscal policies we can leave future generations with an ongoing legacy of freedom, social cohesion, opportunity and prosperity.
This document sets out some of the most important issues we will need to think about over the next few years.