The grey tsunami

24 August 2010
I sat down with my knitting last Sunday afternoon and watched the second half of a TV program on SBS called The Grey Tsunami. I missed the first part (Baby Boom to Bust) of this two part documentary and the first half hour of the second part, nevertheless, it scared me to my bones and has started me thinking of a whole new range of possibilities. I feel like my charger has been turned on all week and my awareness is heightened. It made me stop and think about the implications of what I'd seen and it's made me rethink how we're living. We are not only threatened by global warming and peak oil, we are threatened by our aging population. I have always known that Hanno and I are incredibly lucky to live life as we do, but I didn't realise how lucky we are, and that living like this could save all of us.

Let me first explain what I saw in that life changing half hour. When the retirement age of 65 years was introduced, the average life expectancy was around 61 and there were 16 working people for every one person on the aged pension. That ratio is now three working people for every person on the pension and in the next year or so it will be two working people for every one person retired and living on a pension. But this next fact is absolutely staggering: in just 20 years time - 2030 - there will be more old people in the world than young people! Who will support us all? In a reaction to this, the retirement age in many countries, including Australia and the UK and US, is increasing. By 2027 the retirement age will be 67. Eventually there will be no pension.

Right now in Australia, the age expectancy is 84 if you're a woman and 79 if you're a man. There is a list here so you can check you're own country's life expectancy. Generally, we're now living 20 years past retirement age; twenty years that the people who came up with the retirement scheme never imagined would be there. And during those 20 extra years, we develop a wide range of illnesses and weaknesses that require we are sometimes cared for by others. Dementia now commonly plays a part in the lives of many older people. When dementia and serious physical illnesses present themselves in old age, those people not only need money to help sustain them, they need others to look after them, thus increasing the financial burden on each country.

I expect to live another 20 or 30 years and I hope that I am able to live as I am now without needing care from anyone, but I will expect my government to support me with an aged pension. Hanno is already receiving one, and we have no problems accepting a pension as we have both worked all our lives and paid taxes expecting to retire on a pension. For most of our working lives, there was no compulsory superannuation/retirement plan/pension scheme/401K and so those people of our age and some a bit younger, do not have sufficient funds to live on until we die. There was always that promise from our government to look after us by paying an aged pension.

It is predicted now that the aged pension will stop for most people in my life time. That is, that the people who are now on a pension will receive it until they die, but no new people will come on to a pension. It is expected that the compulsory superannuation/retirement plan/pension scheme/401K that most pay into while they're working now, will be the only financial support after retirement, and that retirement as we know it now will not exist. I was absolutely flabbergasted by that thought. That retirement, once seen as the golden gift at the end of a long working life, disappears and we work until we drop. Retirement will be optional.

Now I see living as we do, and relying on a simple life, as being vitally important for all of us. Simple living can save us. It can give us a life where we focus on home instead of the economy, and it will give us a retirement. So, my friends, this is what I've been thinking about these past few days. At first I was scared and in a bit of a panic, thinking that this precious baby we will welcome into our family soon will have a future of work with no retirement. Now I understand the significant role our way of life will play in the future. It is vitally important that we develop the skills of simple living and apply them to our lives, right here, right now.

Tomorrow I'll write about what I think that future might look like, and unlike today, when adding photos seemed deceptive, tomorrow I'll soften my message with pictures of our simple home. Today needs to stand hard and alone to reflect the bleak message. I hope you'll come back to be part of the discussion. We need your ideas.