Young and old united area real political force | Hewson's View

COMMON GROUND: The young and old have significant overlapping and collective interests in a range of policy challenges. Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
COMMON GROUND: The young and old have significant overlapping and collective interests in a range of policy challenges. Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

I spoke at a webinar event this week, "Generations together for our climate", organised by the Council on the Ageing SA and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.

In preparing for this event, it occurred to me that not only are these two powerful representative groups that understand the magnitude and urgency of the climate challenge, with a genuine concern to see a decisive, government-led, national and global response, but also that together they are potentially perhaps the most powerful group of voters more broadly on a range of issues.

Indeed, there is no doubt that if they were to combine effectively as a political force, they could definitely determine who is to govern us.

In terms of numbers, young people up to the age of 30 equal 30 per cent of voters, and older people aged 60 and over account for 31 per cent of voters - a combined voting block of over 60 per cent of voters.

Putting this combination aside to make another point, I have always been fascinated that "grey power" alone hasn't been a more significant force in our politics given that those aged over 50 account for some 48 per cent of voters.

While our youth don't seem to hesitate to be identified as "young", our aged have always been somewhat wary of being seen as a collective - perhaps they simply don't think of themselves as old, or certainly don't want to just "join" with other old people?

It is hard to understand why those in both government and opposition don't seem to recognise the potential power of this combination of young and old.

For example, in recent days the Opposition has again been tearing itself apart on the issue of climate, with Fitzgibbon resigning from the front bench, and launching an attack on Albanese and Climate Shadow Butler, out of declared concern that the Australian Labor Party has lost touch with its "blue collar base".

While this base may still be important in some industries such as coal mining, it's very "old-style" politics and of much broader national consequence. The so called "blue collar vote" is generally much less significant than it used to be.

For example, union membership in the private sector has collapsed over recent decades.

Many tradies and others have effectively become small businesses, with different values, aspirations, and policy concerns.

There have also been very important shifts, as various ethnic communities have become more significant.

The young and old have significant overlapping and collective interests in a range of policy challenges.

Climate, of course, but also many issues big and small - government policy in general, unemployment, costs of living, health, education, housing, medical insurance, aged care, waste, plastics, food quality and security, and a host of others.

They are the two most "disadvantaged" groups among the unemployed - especially those young people trying for their first job, and those finding it difficult to rejoin the workforce because of their age.

In housing, almost a generation of young people now find themselves excluded from the housing market, especially in our major cities, in some cases relying on their parents and grandparents for essential financial support, while affordable and quality residential aged care is a very serious challenge for many of the old, and if they can stay longer at home, many young people are called on to provide some of their care.

On issues such as medical insurance, the young are dropping out or not joining, compounding the costs and shrinking cover for the aged that increasingly need it.

Both are very concerned with aspects of broader economic management and integrity in government.

Low interest rates have significantly impacted on the aged who relied on interest income in their retirement.

The young baulk at compulsory super, and many have accessed it to deal with COVID.

Both are concerned about wasteful government spending, about our mounting national debt and how it will be repaid by future generations, and the lack of transparency and accountability in how our governments operate.

Both the young and the old "get it" on climate and are very frustrated that our political system doesn't, pretending that it is an issue that can be kicked down the road for the next generation.

Student driven climate protests, concerned about their future and the future of the planet, have become a global phenomenon, with increasing support from the aged, concerned about the impacts on their children and grandchildren.

It is certainly an imperative for those who aspire to govern us to focus on the potential impact if our youth and aged were to effectively combine.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.