At the outset, could I thank Emma Fargher, speaking for Generation Y, and David Brady, speaking for Generation X, for their speeches and for their insights, humour and the challenges they laid down.
Could I also acknowledge the great Alex Jones, Chairman of Deafness Forum of Australia. I pay tribute to the ceaseless advocacy and great work Alex does for the deafness sector. There are very few advocates or lobbyists in Alex’s class in any sector. And one of the other great things about Alex is that he is always full of surprises. For example, I discovered something quite exciting about Alex a few months ago. You can actually carry Alex with you. If you look at the Auslan tutorial on Iphone. Every single shot is of Alex. And you can tell it was produced over many months because you get to enjoy about half a dozen of Alex’s hairstyles. And this tutorial has led to Alex becoming something of a rock star to many young children. Alex is periodically mobbed by kids when they see the Iphone dude. The tutorial is an important project and an example of how technology can be harnessed.
Could I also acknowledge Nicole Lawder, Chief Executive of Deafness Forum of Australia and the convenor of this summit. Nicole and her team do great work at the Forum with minimal resources. Nicole certainly knows the value of a dollar and how to stretch it. And congratulations, Nicole, on the impressive program you have put together for the summit.
My topic this morning, in this Family and Generations strand, is “Baby Boomers”. Now, on this subject, I stand before you as a complete fraud. I’m 43. I was born in 1967. I am fairly and squarely Generation X. One of those born between 1961 and 1981. And I can prove it. The night before last in Melbourne I went to see a concert. The headline acts – Tears for Fears and Spandau Ballet. And I knew every word of “Shout” and “Gold”. Case closed. For those of you who know what I’m talking about. You too are Gen X. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about. Well, you’re clearly not.
When it comes to popular culture we are all in something of a demographic lock. We can’t escape the feelings and images of the world of our formative years. But the serious point is that shared experience and understanding is one of the ways of defining generation. When having an intergenerational discussion it’s important to define our terms. The labels generation X, Y and Z are now applied quite loosely. There used to be agreed definitions of what constituted these alphabetically labelled generations. Baby Boomers were those born in the Post World War II boom, from 1945 to 1960. Generation X was born between 1961 and 1980. And Generation Y between 1981 and 1995. And those born after 1995 are the Generation Z.
But increasingly these terms are being used in a relative sense. A bit like the definition of a wealthy person someone who earns more than you do. The term Generation Y now tends to be applied to anyone significantly younger than you are. Whereas Gen Y are not so young anymore with the oldest Gen Y now approaching 30. And although I am Generation X, I often find myself referred to as a Baby Boomer, because Baby Boomer now tends to be used to refer to anyone who seems a bit older than you are. Whereas the oldest Baby Boomer is now 65. There is at play, within these definitions, what you might call generational bracket creep. But I like to stick to the more traditional understanding of these generational boundaries.
So what makes a baby boomer?
Well, we know they were born between 1945 and 1960. We know they were the generation of free love. We know they do not want to grow old gracefully. We know that when they were at school and university technology was vastly different:
– there were no personal computers
– no mobile phones, not even faxes
– no internet
– library catalogues were still on cards
– there were no Ipods
– no texting, which meant flirting had to be done the old fashioned way face-to-face
– there were no answering machines, let alone voicemail
– no CD players
– no hybrid cars and only leaded fuel
I touch on the experiences of Baby Boomers in order to place them. So we know who we are talking about. And to make the contrast with today even more stark, I’ll compare their life experience with the emerging generation. A number of universities each year put together a list to try to give the faculty a sense of the mindset of that year’s incoming class. Those who start university this year were born in 1991 and 1992 – the tail end of Gen Y.
– they have never known Kingswoods, only Commodores
– there have always been M&M’s, and the blue ones are not new
– they have no idea who shot JR or even who JR was
– they have no recollection of the Clinton era
– Coke cans have never had ring pulls
– they have never feared nuclear war. The “Day after” is a pill to them, not a movie
– they never knew that the Titanic was ever lost
– they have never seen a black and white TV
– McDonald’s never came in Styrofoam
– they don’t know who Mork is, or where he was from
– they have never known the Soviet Union
– they don’t know what a Sony Walkman is
– Popcorn has always been cooked in a microwave
The formative years of the Baby Boomers were very different to those of Generation Y. The “generation gap”, that phrase coined in the 60’s is alive and well. As one social commentator put it,
“Generation Y thinks Gen X is a bunch of whiners. Gen X sees Gen Y as arrogant and entitled. And everyone thinks the Baby Boomers are self-absorbed workaholics.”
As a Gen Xer, I must confess to having some sympathy for this assessment of Baby Boomers and Gen Y.
The experience of hearing loss is also something that separates the generations the Y’s and the Boomers. Let’s see what the statistical umpire says. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics submission to the Senate’s Inquiry into Hearing Health in Australia, the 2007-08 National Health Survey found that:
– “around 2.1 million people (10%) have partial or total loss of hearing, of whom 1.5% or 31, 000 have total loss of hearing”, and that
– “men were more likely to have hearing loss than women. Around 13% of men reported partial or total hearing loss compared with around 7% of women”
The survey also found there was a relationship between age and hearing loss:
– “Rates of partial or total hearing loss ranged from 1.4% amongst those aged under 15, to 42% of those aged 75 and over”
So what do we know about hearing loss across the generations? There are, I think, five key points:
– We know that lots of Australians have hearing loss. I am certainly aware that some estimates put the number of Australians with hearing loss as high as 3.5 million or one in six Australians
– We know that hearing loss increases with age
– We know that men are more likely to have hearing loss, than women
– And we know from other work that nearly half the people that are deaf or have hearing loss are of working age, and
– We know that 37% of hearing loss is due to noise injury
So a picture emerges that chances are someone with hearing loss is likely to be working age, male, have acquired their hearing loss through work or recreation and be a Baby Boomer. But why are Baby Boomers so represented amongst the deaf and hearing impaired? Partly, I suspect, it is a function of age. The Baby Boomers, despite their protestations and their desire to be perpetually youthful, are no as young as they used to be. Partly, I suspect, their hearing loss is inadvertently self-inflicted. Cold Chisel concerts may have something to answer for, as may the somewhat declining suburban practice of the male of the household mowing the lawn without hearing protection each fortnight.
Another contributor, I suspect, was ignorance in the workplace with industrial machinery and lack of protection in decades gone by. Men are also more likely to have been in these environments. And older men are more likely to have been in environments where caution was not exercised. Clearly there is a significant need in the deaf and hearing impaired Baby Boomer cohort to ensure they have the support to contribute and participate fully in work, in life, in family. And clearly, this is a need which will grow. Adequate support is needed.
In addition to the need to assist people who are deaf and hearing impaired to fully participate, there is the economic cost. Access Economics puts this cost at $12 billion a year, with 160,000 people not working because they cannot hear well enough. This is a needless cost. It is an unacceptable cost. And I am well aware of the “Let us Hear Campaign”. I understand the objectives. The message has been received. And I also look forward to reviewing the findings of the Senate Inquiry. I recognise that government, regardless of its hue, needs to do better. And I am grateful to many present here today who have helped my understanding.
On the upside, Generation X, has probably been saved from some of the harmful experiences to which Baby Boomers were exposed. If we get the support for the Baby Boomers right, we’ll be a long way towards making sure we have support for everyone right.
But we need to make sure that new dangers for future generations are identified and addressed, because the challenges for hearing will keep changing. I was first exposed to hearing impairment through someone who was not part of generation X, Y or Z. Not even a Baby Boomer. It was through my grandfather, which I am sure, is not an uncommon thing. Although in his case hearing loss wasn’t age related. He lost most of his hearing through a search for beer as a young man in his late teens. You might think that sounds odd. He was a veteran of the First World War. He fought at the battle of the Somme. And during a lull in proceedings he decided to head to the nearest town in search of beer. He was where he shouldn’t have been and a shell landed next to him. That’s how he lost his hearing. That was the first time I came across the frustration sometimes felt and what was, at the time, a fairly rudimentary form of hearing aid.
New generations, new challenges. The prevalence and volume of music on Ipods and MP-3 players presents a new challenge to hearing. I am sure my own hearing would have been adversely affected if I could actually work out how to load up songs onto these devices. My point is that through technology the ways in which people lose their hearing or suffer hearing impairment will change. But at the same time technology will also allow us to better assist people who are deaf or hearing impaired.
To that end, with Senator Rachel Siewert and Bill Shorten, I was delighted to host a deafness technology demonstration in Parliament House last August. That was a great opportunity to look at how far technology has come. I was excited trying out some of the new technology and products, one of which was launched this morning by AI Media, called AI Live. It provides real-time text of class room discussions delivered to a student’s laptop in 7 seconds. This happens via an operator re-speaking what the teacher says to software that converts it to text on the screen of the student. One of the reasons I got so excited by this product was that I discovered that if there is a double dissolution election and I happen to lose my seat there may actually be a future for me as a re-speaker working for AI Media. I put the headphones on and I wasn’t too shabby.
But wouldn’t it be great if that technology could be widely made available through schools. To redress that shocking statistic that deaf children are 2.4 times less likely to complete high school than their hearing counterparts. What a great opportunity for Generation Z. An opportunity through technology that the Baby Boomers never had.
The joint sponsoring of the technology demonstration at Parliament House by me, Bill and Rachel showed something that I don’t think is fully appreciated. Many activities, including probably 90 per cent of the legislation that passes through our Parliament, occur with the support of most political parties. And the area of disabilities is where partisanship is most readily put aside. And where there is partisanship, it is certainly of a much less intense nature. And I want to acknowledge the genuine commitment of my portfolio counterparts, Rachel Siewert and Bill Shorten, in advocating for Australians with disability. They have both made an important contribution to raising the profile of disability issues. But having said that we certainly want to spur each other on and keep each other honest. I also want to acknowledge the work that John Howard is doing as an Ambassador for Deafness Forum of Australia. A better person could not have been chosen to fulfil that role.
When I took on the portfolio of disabilities a little over a year ago, it came with a surprise. I had been operating on the assumption that because Australia is a wealthy, advanced Western economy that people who have a disability get the support they need. I was wrong. But I think I shared the operating assumption of most Australians, or perhaps the operating assumption of most Gen Xers.
I soon discovered that the level of support a person with a disability receives can depend on a number of factors. What state they live in, whether the disability is congenital or was acquired and, if acquired, whether it was in the workplace, a motor vehicle accident or some other context. The result is that many people with a disability are left without the assistance they need. The support for Australians with a disability is a frayed patchwork. Government needs to do better particularly for people with severe disabilities who need long-term care. No one has put it better than Bruce Bonyhady:
“Australia’s disability support system is inequitable, fractured, under-resourced and slowly collapsing under the weight of its own inadequacies, while sub-optimally consuming billions of dollars of taxpayer’s money each year.”
The idea of a national scheme that moves to a support system based on need rather than service rationing is worth examining. I want to indicate today that the Coalition supports the referral of the concept of a National Disability Insurance Scheme to the Productivity Commission for inquiry. Australians with a disability should be supported properly regardless of how they acquired their disability. Such a scheme may provide the mechanism to address many of the issues in this sector. While serious structural change is needed I also recognise that there are some issues which need to be addressed sooner rather than later.
In closing I’d like to share one concern and one frustration. Not in a spirit of partisanship, but as object lessons for all governments.
Firstly, to my concern. Recently I have been asking myself the question (putting aside the argument as to whether the Government’s stimulus was needed or not), I ask myself what a difference just a fraction of the $16.2 billion spent by the Government on school halls and covered outdoor learning areas could have made in the area of disabilities. To put this $16.2 billion (and the $2 billion on roof insulation) into perspective – the total funding to the social and not-for-profit sector under the Government’s stimulus spending was $11 million.
Against the backdrop of debt funded spending, I also wonder about the degree to which Government debt could compromise the ability of this and future governments to do the things required in the disability sector. I flag it as a concern.
Secondly, to my frustration. Billions of dollars can seemingly be found at will for health and hospitals, but relatively small amounts can’t be found for the disability sector. It’s all the more frustrating when you consider that despite the obvious problems in our health system, on the whole, it’s not a bad system. You generally get what you need. And it is certainly preferable to be ill in the Australian hospital system than almost anywhere else in the world. Yet over the last few months you could be forgiven for thinking Australia had the worst hospital system in the world and that fixing the health system was the greatest social policy priority.
The need to fix our public hospitals – or build school halls or insulate roofs for that matter – is as nothing compared to the need to improve the support given to Australians with disability. It is important to keep the needs and challenges in other portfolio areas in perspective.
That is my frustration. It may be one that you share.
Thank you for the opportunity to be here and thank you for allowing me to be an honorary Baby Boomer. I think we Xers and Boomers need to stick together as we get older and fewer in number. Thanks very much.