Padraic P. McGuinness, The Weekend Australian, August 1-2, 1992, p. 2.

Are we becoming a nation of struldbrugs?

These were the immortals on the imaginary island of Luggnagg depicted by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels whom he used to satirise the common desire to live into extreme old age.

Rather than the immortals becoming wiser and more knowledgeable, they deteriorated into senility and forgetfulness, becoming ever sourer and more envious of the young. So useless and pernicious were they that Luggnagg deprived them of all civil rights after the age of 80, leaving them with only a bare pittance to live on.

Swift’s struldbrugs were:

not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but uncapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grandchildren. Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions.

The alarming thing about trends in the Australian population is that it is ageing rapidly. As the baby-boomers move up the age scale, the much lower birth rates of the years since 1970 ensure that the age structure is becoming top-heavy.

Much more serious is the fact that life expectancy for the baby-boomers is being extended every year by medical science and technology, and in their determination to live forever they are indulging in all kinds of activities meant to maintain their health into old age.

But just because they will live longer does not mean they will become cheaper to support.

As well as their demands on the social security and inadequately funded superannuation, their demands on health spending will rise rapidly.

The claims on health and welfare spending on the older age groups are already extraordinarily high. According to figures quoted by Graeme Hugo of Flinders University in a paper prepared for the population issues committee of the National Population Council, the demands per head of the older age groups for health treatment are now several times that of younger groups.

For example, government health spending on the 0-15 age group in 1984-85 was $322 each; for the age group 60-64 it was $1192, and increased rapidly up the age scale — for the 75-year age group it averaged $4325.

The natural human reaction is to defend such spending. But as the proportion of the population in the older age groups rises rapidly over the next 30 years, the proportion of national product gobbled up by them in health and other costs will soar.

And people are living longer and longer. Hugo writes:

The unprecedented nature of the mortality improvements since 1970 should be stressed. This is the first time in our history that improvements at older ages have played a major role in overall reduction in mortality. This has also been observed in other developed countries.

Already (as I discussed in the context of New Zealand in yesterday’s The Australian) the welfare system is becoming heavily biased in favour of the old against the young — the baby-boomers during their lifetimes have been beneficiaries of the welfare State, not net contributors, and now they are demanding that their children should be net contributors to make up the deficiency they have left.

This is bad enough. But even worse is the fact that the baby-boomers, a generation of unprecedented greed and self-centredness, are determined to live longer and longer.

They will not be particularly healthy, since all the health fads of the past 20 years, from macrobiotic food through jogging to aerobics, from the cholesterol fad through to high-fibre diets, are turning out to be at best useless and at worst positively harmful. But the obsession with health is now taking the form of health fascism directed against smokers and drinkers.

In effect, the design of the healthcare system that has been foisted on us is such that it has built-in incentives to overuse and as the average age of the population grows older, the demands on the common taxation pool for healthcare will grow even more rapidly.

The “healthy” activities, while they may avert heart disease and some other complaints, such as diabetes, will give rise to a new set of complaints among the spavined struldbrugs, as a result of the injury strains of football, netball, jogging, aerobics, etc.

To relieve the demands on the healthcare system all the pleasurable activities that are unhealthy will be blamed — the witch-hunt against smokers and drinkers will redouble in ferocity. And yet, heavy smokers and drinkers are public benefactors — they contribute heavily to taxation revenue and shorten their lives (they more than pay for their demands on the health budget), thus relieving the future pressures and demands on the working-age generations.

It is a dismal future to anticipate. It makes nonsense of the claim that there is no problem with an ageing population because the increase in the aged dependency ratio will be offset by a decrease in the young dependency ratio.

As the figures already quoted demonstrate, the cost of dependency among the young is much lower than the cost of dependency among the old. Moreover, the largest element of social payments to the young in by way of education spending, which has an economic return payments to the old will never have.

Although I have little sympathy with the arguments put forward by tertiary students against university fees, they have nevertheless unconsciously seized on a basic truth — education money is virtually the only subsidy they are even going to get from the baby-boomers, so they should maximise it.

They are going to have to pay higher taxes in the future to support their parents, so why not fight for every penny they can get now?

Let us return to Swift, who had a firm grasp on the elements of social policy. How did his struldbrugs get treated?

As soon as they have completed the term of 80 years, they are looked on as dead in law: their heirs immediately succeed to their estates, only a small pittance is reserved for their support, and the poor ones are maintained at the public charge.

After that period they are held incapable of any employment of trust or profit, they cannot purchase lands or take leases, neither are they allowed to be witnesses in any cause, either civil or criminal, not even for the decision of meers and bounds.

This of course is how the baby-boomers are treating the elders, even those still of working age, who through their generous approach to the welfare State ensured their children were on the take their whole lives. (Already there are stories from the United States of families abandoning granny at the airport or the railway station — a rather cruder version of what happens to many older people here.)

Some of course have a sense of gratitude. But far from the children of the baby-boomers feeling any gratitude, they will feel robbed.

The real issue of social policy over the next 30 years or so will be the struggle between the old and the young over the health and welfare bill.

In the worst case, the young will be so outraged when they realise how they have been turned into milch cows for a generation of struldbrugs, they will mete out to them a Swiftian correction. The deceased smokers and drinkers, who refuse to outlive their biblical three-score and 10, will be the lucky ones.

(in order of appearance on Economics.org.au)
  1. Where Friedman is a pinko
  2. The Economic Guerrillas: A lecture in honour of Maxwell Newton
  3. The Libertarian Alternative
  4. Libel laws block insider's revelations of Australia's industrial mess
  5. But perhaps the merchants of doom have a point
  6. The Origins of Paddy McGuinness
  7. The Itch for Influence
  8. LA safe from religious poverty
  9. Aunty should hang up her boots in face of premature senility
  10. Warning: health is a budget hazard
  11. New ABC Tory chief won't rock the boat
  12. Time to sell the ABC
  13. Youth victims of the welfare con
  14. Paddy McGuinness on class sizes (1991)
  15. More teachers won't solve the problems in our schools
  16. Paddy McGuinness on Catholics and wealth distribution
  17. Paddy McGuinness proposes inheritance tax equal to handouts received by deceased
  18. Let them swim nude
  19. Time to legalise heroin
  20. State-sponsored sports rorts
  21. The blight of the baby-boomers
  22. To reduce the problems of crime and corruption, legalise heroin
  23. We should ban Olympics
  24. Evidence shows heroin policy is not working
  25. Wowsers deny society while killing children
  26. Will Australia compete?
  27. Canberra's social revolution
  28. Paddy McGuinness in 1994 on the 2012 class size debate
  29. Why not pay for the ABC?
  30. Paddy McGuinness on David Stove
  31. Sometimes the truth hurts
  32. Paddy McGuinness on compulsory, informal and donkey voting, and breaking electoral laws
  33. Thomas Sowell, McGuinness, Aborigines and other minorities
  34. Genocide with kindness
  35. Hyde, McGuinness and Sturgess on Chaining/Changing Australia
  36. Paddy McGuinness defends comparing IQ of races
  37. Do-gooders should glorify smokers
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