Last month my mum had to meet with her sisters to have a difficult discussion. My grandma has reached the point where she can’t live alone any more, and the only sister who lives in the same town as Grandma is now, unexpectedly, caring for her sick husband. A new plan was necessary. A fresh idea of what it means for three daughters to love the mother who served and cared for each of them.
Conversations like this always force us to confront harsh realities. We are human. We will get sick. We may lose our mental acuity. We will die.
Once we have processed the unsettling notion of our own frailty, and the advancing mortality of our parents, the next awkward reality looms large. Money. The financial cost of the long-term needs of a non-working elderly person presents an ideological challenge to a consumer-driven society, where it is normal to judge an individual on their ability to work, earn money and look after themselves.
Talking with my mum after she got back led me to think a lot about the future; we talked specifically about the time when I will have to consider how to care for her.
After this conversation I read a report from the Cato Institute titled Spending Beyond our Means: How we are bankrupting future generations.
Speaking from an American perspective, the paper directs our attention to the effect of current superannuation policy, placing an enormous financial burden on today’s children and on future generations in order to deliver government benefits (pension and health care) to current middle-aged workers and their elders.
Essentially, the Baby Boomer generation, the largest cohort of humans the world has ever seen, is retiring, and over the course of their working and voting lives neither the people nor the government has done enough to financially prepare for the cost of their old age.
New Zealand is fortunate that our population tree is not as top heavy with Boomers as comparative Western nations. However, we still have challenges ahead. Our national tasks are to ensure that the younger generation doesn’t leave as the tax burden shifts to their shoulders, and that Kiwi parents and communities take seriously the responsibility of growing our young people into physically, socially and economically healthy adults.
It is easy to look at the overall picture of generational burden and shrug it off as a policy nightmare. However, as Mum and I discovered, this is a time for generations to speak to each other.
Our parents need to think and vote with a mind to the economic legacy they want to leave to their children.
And our young people have to look clearly and responsibly at what it will mean to love and care for those who have gone before us. The way we treat each other in this time will ultimately tell the story of who we are.
(Originally printed in the Northland Age, Tuesday, 25 June).