Don't blame the victim

The baby boomers are the tall-poppy generation.

The baby boomers are the tall-poppy generation. It's fashionable - OK, even - to tear them down. They're big, they're brash and they're all consuming. They've pushed ahead and, according to legend, snaffled up way more than their fair share.

Forget Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. As early as the new millennium, thinkers warned that the next post-Cold War conflict would be young versus old.

Three weeks ago, speaking at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, British journalists Shiv Malik and Ed Howker announced the war had finally arrived - well, in Europe at least.

Young Europeans represent the first downwardly mobile generation since World War II. As they struggle to enter the property market, let alone start families, their governments are mulling over how to fund the pension and health costs of their ageing parents.

In Australia, we've seen anti-boomer rhetoric slip into policy debates on superannuation.

That policymakers across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have used ageing populations to lament spiralling costs and justify spending cuts for more than a decade is disconcerting. That other interest groups are buying into the ageing-is-a-burden rhetoric to further their own agendas is even more so.

Older Australians could be forgiven for feeling under siege. If you believe the media reports, mum and dad - after years of raising the family, paying taxes and servicing the mortgage (at 18 per cent in the 1980s) - have done an about turn and decided to age disgracefully.

For weeks, National Seniors has been batting away sensational claims that older Australians are prowling about in criminal gangs (a 30 per cent surge in crime among over 65s in NSW) and snorting one line too many (an increase in drug overdoses).

And who can forget that former Reserve Bank employee's lurid tale of seniors burying cash in the backyard to qualify for the age pension? ("The grey economy: how retirees rort the pension," one headline screamed.)

These claims are silly enough to elicit a giggle, but their timing, while seniors are under attack from another, more insidious quarter, is unfortunate.

Last month, we saw a growing campaign in which the savings and spending choices of retirees were being called into question by groups pushing for policy change.

First, the Actuaries Institute warned of a "tsunami" of old people and called for immediate tax, pension and superannuation reforms. Among those reforms were higher ages for superannuation preservation and the age pension. Less subtle was a report released by the accountants' lobby, CPA Australia, which warned of a looming baby boomer "retirement income disaster". Using figures from the Melbourne Institute's Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, the group claimed retirees were blowing their lump-sum superannuation payments on overseas holidays, living the high life and paying down debt.

With the HILDA survey notoriously lacking in wealth data (acknowledged in the report's disclaimer), closer scrutiny reveals very little substance to these claims.

Specifically, the report provided no direct evidence of households using superannuation lump-sum payments to pay down debt. That assumption appears to have been based on non-retired households having more debt and more superannuation than retired households.

There was no evidence that once a household retired, it used its super lump sum to pay down debt. Instead, it is highly likely many households continue working because they have a debt or higher debt.

That said, with home ownership strongly linked to financial and emotional wellbeing in old age, is paying off a lingering home mortgage such an unreasonable use of superannuation?

Nor did the report provide direct evidence that home owners are using equity in their homes to fund overseas trips and opulent lifestyles. Debt has increased in line with house prices, and many households have had to take on increased debt to buy a family home. Most importantly, perhaps, CPA failed to highlight the impact of the global financial crisis on the super balances and retirement plans of older Australians.

Figures from the 2011-12 National Survey on the Barriers to Employment for Mature Age People reveal two-thirds of people aged 45 to 74 have seen their super balances plummet. As a result, older Australians - 40 per cent of whom have delayed retirement - are questioning their financial advisers, policymakers and the system as a whole.

In a recent National Seniors poll, half of about 1500 people surveyed aged 45 to 74 who understood super said the rules changed too often, and 40 per cent of those still working said that had affected their retirement plans.

CPA's claims won it coverage but at what cost to the reputations of baby boomer mums and dads who quietly helped their adult children through university and into their first homes to the tune of $23 billion last year? Interestingly, the CPA and Actuaries Institute reports were framed to mount the argument for super to be paid as an annuity. Both coincided with speculation that the government was planning changes to super in the midyear budget review. This has since been dismissed.

Let's have these debates. But not at the expense of inter-generational cohesion.

No Australian, whatever their age, deserves to be demonised in the name of public policy.

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