Skip to main content


Adapting to Ageing Australia

Discrimination Age Discrimination

(Check against delivery)


In line with this year’s theme, ‘The Art of Disruption’, I would like to talk about how society is managing the transition to an older population and what the retirement industry can do to positively influence attitudes towards older Australians and be a ‘disruptor’ or leader in this field.


Let’s start with some quick facts. Like most nations around the world, Australia’s population is undergoing a significant shift. We are living much longer. We are also living more years of healthy life. The 2015 Intergenerational Report sets out massive projections for Australia’s population over the next 40 years. The number of Australians aged 65 and over is projected to more than double by 2055 [1]. Life expectancy continues to increase. In 2055, men can expect to live on average to 95.1 [2]  and women to 96.6 [3].  Compared with previous generations, older boomers are also likely to live many more years free of disability [4].

This is something to be celebrated. But we must also be thinking about how we can assist older people to make the most of these extra years and continue to make important contributions to their families and communities.

We also need to be vigilant to the challenges of age discrimination, elder abuse and the broader implications of population ageing on housing, healthcare, the workforce and the economy. We can all play a part in addressing these issues, including the retirement living and property industries. I would like to take this time to explore with you some of the things you could do to make a difference.

Inquiry into the retirement village sector

Before I begin, I can’t ignore the elephant in the room. The recent Four Corners and Fairfax investigation into retirement village companies has focussed attention on your industry. The ensuing NSW Government Inquiry is now complete and it is important that we all work together to ensure that older people are adequately protected and fully informed of their rights and obligations as they enter into retirement living arrangements.

Following the inquiry, the NSW Government is taking action with its four-point plan, which aims to put consumers first and protect residents from potentially dodgy practices [5].  The Federal Consumer Affairs Minister, Michael McCormack, has talked about the possibility of unifying laws across the states [6].

I know you have committed to your own 8-point plan, which includes among other things, the critical points of making contracts more transparent and encouraging consumers to seek independent legal advice before signing a contract [7]. I believe legal and financial professionals should also receive speciality training to ensure that they can provide accurate, comprehensive advice to potential residents.

At the end of the day, the goal of ensuring that the financial and physical wellbeing of our senior citizens is safeguarded and protected in retirement is not owned by any one group. It is a shared responsibility that requires the cooperation of governments, the retirement living sector, state law councils and many others.

I know that the Property Council and Retirement Living Council is active in championing policies which support older Australians to age in good health and in appropriate accommodation. The majority of village operators and service providers who are doing the right thing and supporting older Australians to age well in retirement.

Making a difference

Back to the main topic. With over 2000 member companies and national reach, including rural and regional areas [8],  the Property Council is well placed to make a positive difference in many areas of ageing. I would like to explore some of these areas with you now, including some of my priority concerns as Age Discrimination Commissioner.


First, employment. It may seem a bit of a stretch to be talking about employment in a retirement living summit. However, as Australia’s second largest employer, generating 1.1 million direct jobs and supporting another 1.5 million jobs [9],  the property and retirement living industry is in a good position to bring much needed change to this area.

People aged 55 years and over make up roughly a quarter of the population [10],   but only 16% of the total workforce [11].  This age cohort is the fastest growing in Australia and many of these older Australians are looking to stay in the workforce for longer.

Data from the ABS Retirement Intentions 2014 survey show that 71% of persons intended to retire at the age of 65 years or over. This is up from 48% compared with ten years before. More people are also intending to retire at older ages, 70 or over [12].  However, labour force participation continues to decline with age and many older Australians are too young to retire but shut out from the workforce because of age discrimination and other barriers.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Willing to Work national inquiry report into workplace discrimination against older people, published last year, found that older people are subject to age discrimination at all stages of employment and are often seen as ‘overqualified’, ‘won’t fit the organisational culture’ or ‘not to be taken seriously as they are just looking for a path to retirement’.

But what has this got to do with the retirement living sector?

First, increasing the workforce participation of older Australians will bring enormous benefits to both businesses and the national economy. These are older workers, as young as those in their 50s, who apart from age discrimination would be working more years, earning income, paying taxes, accumulating super savings and have greater capacity to draw from their private savings to fund their retirement.

Second, older workers are a good investment in human capital. They offer experience, loyalty, low absenteeism and a different perspective for your workforce.

Third, the current under-recognition of older workers presents an opportunity for your sector to be a leader in this field and stay ahead of the game by valuing older workers. But you must be prepared to adapt and innovate. This may involve:

• Providing training for your staff and HR around age inclusion in the workplace and ensuring non-discriminatory recruitment practices.
• Offering flexible work arrangements.
• Facilitating transitions to retirement.
• Redesigning jobs for some of your older workers, including those in physical labour roles such as construction.
• Providing opportunities for reverse mentoring.

There is a plethora of things you can do and I would encourage you to have a look at the Willing to Work report and its accompanying Good Practices guide for further suggestions [13].

The winner last night of the Village Manager of the year is a perfect example – he brings the skills of his previous professions to bear on his village.

Elder Abuse

The second issue I want to talk about is elder abuse.

Based on available evidence collated by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, it is likely that between 2-10% of Australians experience elder abuse in any given year [14].  The figures are likely to be higher as elder abuse is often hidden and underreported.

Forms of abuse include physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, financial abuse and neglect. Financial abuse appears to be most common followed by psychological abuse [15].

The Australian Law Reform Commission has recently completed a major inquiry into elder abuse in Australia [16].  I am committed to ensuring that we implement as many of the recommendations from the report as possible. Elder abuse in an ageing world is ‘everyone’s business’. The retirement living sector, which works closely with older people, can play an important part in addressing and preventing it.

One of the ways you can contribute, and some of you may already be doing this, is to provide regular information sessions for village residents on making and updating their wills, Powers of Attorney and Advanced Care Directives. In my consultations on elder abuse issues, very rarely did anyone have a POA or other enduring document. Some people had wills, but few kept them updated on a regular basis.

Training for people who work with residents (e.g. nurses, doctors, and retirement village staff) is also critical so they can recognise signs of elder abuse and be informed about appropriate responses and referral pathways.

Houisng and homelessness

The next issue I want to discuss is housing and homelessness, especially in relation to older women. Our nation faces a potential tsunami of older women at risk of homelessness.

The number of women over the age of 50 who are couch surfing or sleeping in their cars has almost doubled in the past four years [17]. Who are these older women and why are they the new hidden face of homelessness in Australia? Many are mothers, housewives, workers – women who have led conventional lives. Often they have been in and out of the workforce to care for children and family members. Women who are non-homeowners and single are unlikely to have sufficient resources for retirement due to a combination of factors such as the gender pay gap, interrupted work cycles and an expensive private rental market [18].

Most Australian women in the workforce did not have access to superannuation until it became compulsory in 1992 [19].15 The latest breakdown from the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia shows that despite an increase in women’s superannuation at retirement, they still have significantly less than men, with women having $157,050 on average, compared to $270,710 for men [20].

Additionally, an unexpected crisis – the death of a spouse, divorce, injury or loss of a job – can make women extremely vulnerable to homelessness.

“I had a relationship breakup. I lost my job not long after,” one woman in her late 50s explains, “I lost my house because we split up. Financially I could not cope … and I just did not have anywhere to go.” [21]

It would be wonderful to see the property and retirement living industry as part of the solution to this growing problem. There is a range of solutions – from group housing models to ethical investment frameworks – which can help.

Take, for example, the Doorway program, operated by not-for-profit Wellways, which helps people experiencing mental health issues who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, to secure and sustain a home within the private rental market. People in the program are required to pay 30 per cent of their income and Commonwealth Rent Assistance directly towards the rent, and Doorway pays the difference for up to 18 months. An independent evaluation of the Doorway program found that one third of the participants’ mental health improved and they no longer required case management and clinical services, and the majority of participants achieved stable and secure private rental accommodation for the first time in their lives [22].

This model could work more broadly to help address a range of housing issues. There are other models that could be developed or adapted as well.

What we need is a “multi-pronged approach” that acknowledges the “complex range of people in different circumstances at different ages”. For example, some women at risk have assets but nothing suitable to purchase. One idea may be to develop a shared equity scheme, where older people could part-purchase a unit.

A research project looking at the number of older women who are low income and currently renting would provide much needed data in this field.The Property Council could also consider holding a roundtable on innovative and affordable housing solutions. A recent study by AHURI and the Grattan Institute has shown that recent increases in housing stock have tended toward high-end housing units [23].

The provision of more affordable housing will also be relevant to the retirement living industry. When the current baby boom recedes, the industry may be left with more retirement living spots than the next ageing cohort is able to afford as home ownership continues to decline.


We will need an army of champions and disruptors to change attitudes and provide innovative solutions to current issues affecting our ageing population. It is within your power to make a real difference and I encourage you to take action and join me in supporting older Australians to live well and age well in retirement.

If you are not motivated by that goal itself, self-interest should be sufficient. My final message to you is that barring a premature death, each and every one of you is going to get older. The example and culture that exists when you reach the stage of being an older worker will depend on the part you have had in setting an example and promoting the value of older Australians. It is up to you as to what the climate will be like in the mid-2000s – I hope it is different from today.


[1] The Treasury, 2015 Intergenerational Report - Overview (2015), 8. At (viewed 8 April 2016).

[2] The Treasury, 2015 Intergenerational Report - Overview (2015), 4. At (viewed 8 April 2016).

[3]The Treasury, 2015 Intergenerational Report - Overview (2015), 4. At (viewed 8 April 2016).

[4] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Life expectancy and disability in Australia: expected years living with and without disability, April 2017. At (viewed 20 April 2017).

[5] Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation, ‘Retirement Village Reforms to Put Consumers First’, Media Release, 30 July 2017. At (viewed 23 November 2017).
[6]  Charles Miranda, Stop the Senior Rip Off (5 November 2017), Sunday Telegraph, (viewed 23 November 2017).
[7] Property Council of Australia, ‘A Plan for Australia’s Retirement Villages’, Media Release, ( August 2017. At (viewed 23 November 2017).
[8] Property Council of Australia, Our Members,
[9] Property Council of Australia, Our Campaign, (viewed 23 November 2017).
[10] In 2009-10, there were around 5.5 million Australians aged 55 years and over, making up one quarter of the population. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010, Australian Social Trends: Older people and the labour market – Sep 2010, cat. No. 4102.0. At (viewed 26 April 2016).
[11] In 2009-10, people aged 55 years and over made up 16% of the total labour force, up from around 10% three decades earlier. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010, Australian Social Trends: Older people and the labour market – Sep 2010, cat. No. 4102.0. At (viewed 26 April 2016).
[12] ABS Retirement and Retirement Intentions, Australia, July 2014 to June 2015 (Cat. No. 6238.0). At
[13] Australian Human Rights Commission, Willing to Work: Good practice examples: A resource for employers, 2016. At (viewed 24 April 2017).
[14] Rae Kaspiew, Rachel Carson and Helen Rhoades, Elder Abuse Understanding Issues, Frameworks and Response (2016), Australian Institute of Family Studies, Research Report No. 35, p 46. At (viewed 23 September 2016).
[15] Rae Kaspiew, Rachel Carson and Helen Rhoades, ‘Elder Abuse: Understanding Issues, Frameworks and Responses’ (Research Report 35, Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2016) 5.
[16] Australian Law Reform Commission Report 131, Elder Abuse – A National Legal Response (June 2017). At (viewed 27 June 2017).
[17] Jane Gilmore, ‘Single women face a frightening future of homelessness in Australia’ Sydney Morning Herald, (online) 9 August 2017. At (viewed 25 October 2017).
[18] Yvonne Hartman & Sandy Darab, ‘The housing pathways of single older non-home owning women in a rural region of Australia’ (2017) 54 Journal of Rural Studies, 234–243.
[19] Sandy Darab & Yvonne Hartman, ‘Understanding Single Older Women’s Invisibility in Housing Issues in Australia’ (2013) 30:4 Housing, Theory and Society, 348–367.
[20] Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, ‘The super pie is getting bigger and women are finally getting more’, (media release, 26 October 2017). At (viewed 1 November 2017).
[21] Ginger Norman, Older Women are the Fastest Growing Group of Homeless Australians (23 June 2015),, (viewed 22 September 2016).
[22] Wellways, Doorways, (viewed 23 November 2017).
[23] Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Inquiry into housing policies, labour force participation and economic growth, Report No 285, (June 2017), 29.

Dr Kay Patterson, Age Discrimination Commissioner

See Also

Discrimination Age Discrimination

Maximising the contribution of ageing Australians in our society and workplace

CEDA NSW Trustee Lunch Wednesday 27 March 2019 (Dr Patterson spoke to this paper) Thank you for inviting me to join you today. I, too, acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land we gather on today, and pay my respects to the Gadigal peoples of the Eora nation and their elders past, present and...

Speech Icon