Boomers, this battle ain’t over

Weekend Australian Magazine

13 July 2019

Bernard Salt – Columnist

My fellow baby boomers. I know that many of you are feeling pleased with yourselves, having at the federal election staved off an attack on the benefits associated with your recent or imminent retirement. I’d like to report that thanks to this collective effort the issue of franking credits has receded into the annals of history, never to be spoken of again.

That is what I would like to say – but of course that wouldn’t be the truth. The truth is that the franking credits issue, and the angst over a range of other retiree benefits and entitlements, will never disappear. It’ll merely hibernate before bursting back into life. The reason is obvious: politicians will see populist opportunity in finding ever more inventive ways to limit public spending on retirement.

It is foolhardy for any political party to launch a full-throttle attack on middle-class baby boomers now. Those born between 1946 and 1964 are currently aged 55 to 73 and straddle both full-time work and retirement. They are fit and healthy (for their age) and many are still at the top of their game, which means that if attacked they can inflict lethal damage on an aggressor. And that is precisely what happened at the May election.

Dark forces that seek the curtailment (or demise) of the self-funded retiree say we can no longer afford to keep these privileged Australians in the manner to which they have become accustomed; we must wipe away some – some – of the egregious benefits that coddle their pampered retirement. And those dark forces have an unassailable advantage over their ageing quarry. They are younger. They are leaner. They are hungrier. All they need to do is wait. The next assault on the reserves of the well-off baby boomers will come as their numbers diminish, as their herd frays. Some time in the next decade, the stalkers of self-funded retirees will re-emerge, take aim at the by then wearied and bedraggled boomers, and release – with glee – their slings and arrows of discontent. Strike the weakened: that is the brutal law of the jungle, and of politics. Future tribes of self-funded retirees may well huddle together for protection, but the assailing forces will be too strong, and intoxicated by the promised spoils.It was always going to end this way for the self-funded retiree life form: their numbers afford a measure of protection early in retirement, but later it’s a different story.

By the 2030s the great retirement reorganisation will have taken place and the once vast herds of roaming, roaring baby boomersaurus will have diminished. And, of course, as the thinning progresses, and as the savannah’s resources are recovered and redistributed, a new generation of retirees will present itself.

Enter the Xer retiree, born 1965-1982. This is the get-on-with-it generation, the Quiet Generation, the generation that for a lifetime was besieged from above and below by louder and more opinionated voices. A lifetime of access to a national superannuation scheme will deliver Xer retirees into a kind of promised land, largely free of bothersome baby boomers and totally disconnected from the mutterings of the infernal Millennials.

And here is the irony. The vast number of boomers in retirement forces a rethink about the benefits bestowed upon retirees. But when Xers get to retirement’s promised land, it’ll be time for politicians to loosen the purse strings. Boomer retirees do the heavy lifting; Xer retirees reap the rewards. Is this karma or is this luck? I suspect the answer depends on which generation you were born into.