Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni: Let's talk, before we're too old

Looming pressures of retirement wave demand serious conversation.

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

I am a Gen-Xer (born 1972), and although I am a whiney tart at the best of times, I don't hold any animus towards older generations for getting cheap housing, free higher education and easier entry to the job market.

To me, these things helped the so-called "baby boomers" to create quite a bit of wealth for the country. Not just in terms of assets, but also freeing up people to actively build and participate in the arts, cultural and charitable organisations which younger New Zealanders can still enjoy and benefit from.

It's too bad, of course, that some of that wealth wasn't compulsorily harnessed to create a legacy superannuation fund with which to pay for everyone's old age. It's also a shame that many of those hard built assets have been hocked off.

And it's three times a pity that yet another Budget passed without any real, new ideas on how to fund our ageing population comfortably into their twilight years - vague references to raising the retirement age notwithstanding.

Many people believe radical changes to our pension plan need to be enacted to keep the country from drowning in a sea of silver-haired debt. But our universal system, which many people elsewhere in the world see as enlightened and fair, is something to retain and cherish. But like ACC payments to people who take stupid risks, a universal system means we must take the good with the bad.

At this point we need someone to at least try to plot out how all retirees can lead lives of relative dignity and comfort without cutting the current crop of workers off at the knees, or forcing them to labour until they collapse. Compulsory retirement savings and a permanent hold on tax cuts seem like two obvious starting points.

Then there's our health system, which needs a cross-party focus, because even if we can afford our burgeoning health vote now, it's debatable whether a shrinking pool of taxpayers will be able to keep all seniors alive and kicking into their dotage.

To take one example of a looming problem: dementia. The New York Times recently reported a study that suggests costs associated with the disease in the US are probably already higher than the cost of cancer or heart disease.

Worse, costs and the number of sufferers will double in 30 years. That doesn't include the "mild cognitive impairment" that is said to affect 22 per cent of people over 71 years of age to varying degrees.

New Zealanders will not be immune to this trend. Across the world, the cost of caring for people with dementia - the treatment, monitoring and therapy, as well as trying to ensure family carers have support - is monumental. Dealing with this one potentially cataclysmic outcome of our ageing population is going to require adult conversation. But the conversation stretches beyond the needs of the healthcare system - it needs to examine how important it is for us as a society to ensure all our seniors (eventually, me and you, if we're lucky) live a reasonably comfortable old age within our means.

Pre-election time seems as good a moment as any to start talking.

- NZ Herald

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Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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