Disability and age: from 1998 to 2015

By Katharine Betts

Republished from YourLifeChoices 30 June 2016

We’re so used to hearing that an ageing population is the biggest threat facing our economy, but as sociologist Katharine Betts reveals, the figures don’t quite support this claim.

Since the late 60s large families have become less common, and at the same time, life expectancy has continued its steady rise. For many of us this feels like an improvement –parents no longer have to face numerous unplanned pregnancies and most of us can look forward to our 80th birthday and beyond. But these two changes also mean that the average age of the population has risen and will continue to rise for a few more decades.

For some people, however, this does not look like a good thing. In March 2015 a journalist charted the life of newborn baby girl, writing that she would ‘experience life as a youthful minority in an Australia bursting with ailing boomers’. And, by the time the child was middle aged, ‘there’ll be a generation of geriatrics to support’.[1] Another writes of ‘bedridden hordes of the elderly, dwindling numbers of able-bodied workers, and deeply indebted governments scratching for tax revenues to pay for rising health costs, pensions and aged-care costs’.[2] Other comments like these are not hard to find.[3]

But is the situation really so bad?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has been conducting surveys of the numbers of people suffering from disability for over 30 years. They show the percentage of Australians with disabilities grouped by age and sex, and by how serious the problem might be.

The first two were in the 1980s: 1981 and 1988. They show a discouraging tendency for the rate of disability to rise over the seven intervening years. In 1981, 51 per cent of Australians aged 85 and over were found to be ‘severely handicapped’ and in 1988 the proportion had risen to 62 per cent.[4] People were described as severely handicapped if they needed help with one or more of three core activities: self care (showering, dressing, eating and so on), mobility (moving around inside or outside the home), and verbal communication.

By the late 1990s the terminology had changed from handicap to disability, and the definitions of serious disability now included two separate categories: profoundly disabled (always needing assistance with one of the three core activities) and severely disabled (sometimes needing assistance with a core activity).[5]

There have been five comparable surveys from 1998 to 2015. And the pattern they provide gives cause for optimism.

Figure 1 shows that rates of profound or severe disability for people aged 65 and over have been falling over this 17-year period. In the case of those aged 85 and over the rate fell from 65 per cent to 49 per cent.


Source: Disability, Ageing and Carers, ABS, 4430.0 (various issues)

The 1998 data doesn’t distinguish between people aged 85-89 and those aged 90 and over. But from 2003 on we can see the difference between the older old and the younger old more clearly.


Source: Disability, Ageing and Carers, ABS, 4430.0 2015, April 2016[6]

Figure 2 shows that between 2003 and 2015 profound and severe disability rates for people aged 90 and over fell from 74 per cent to 63 per cent, while rates for people aged 85 to 89 fell from 51 per cent to 42 per cent. Similar to Figure 1, it also shows that rates were lower for people under the age of 85. But in Figure 2 it’s also clear that, in all cases, these rates have also fallen since 2003.

Disability is not confined to older people. There are profoundly and severely disabled people in all age groups. In 2015 more than half of them (52 per cent) were under the age of 65. Indeed all babies and children, at least up to the age of five, need help with self care, mobility and communication. To get a full picture of how many Australians need such help, and how many carers we in fact need, we should add them in too.

But here we are focusing on older people.

Figure 3 shows the changes between 2013 and 2015 by both age and sex for the 65-and-over group.

Source: Disability, Ageing and Carers, ABS, 4430.0 2015, April 2016[7]

In all age-group categories the reported rates are higher for women than for men. In some cases this could be due to men being reluctant to report serious problems, but the gap is probably mostly due to the same factors that lead to men having lower life expectancy: more hazardous work, risk taking, reluctance to seek medical help, and hormonal factors that may weaken men’s immune systems8. Thus it is probable that health problems among men are more likely to end in an earlier death rather than prolonged disability. It’s also true that women have a higher risk of dementia, a risk that is independent of the fact that they live longer and so are exposed to this risk over a longer period9.

But the important finding is that, over the 12-year period, rates have gone down for all of the sub-groups. We are not only living longer, the portion of our lives when we might fear to be limited in what we can do is getting shorter. Life expectancy is going up, and healthy life expectancy is going up a bit faster.[8]

Why is this happening? Medical scientists and demographers have not yet got clear answers. But they can tell us the immediate causes. Coronary artery disease[9] and serious vision problems[10] are declining. Dementia — the disease that many of us fear most — is also in retreat. In 2013 a British study reported that over a 20-year period the prevalence of dementia among people aged 65 and over had fallen by 24 per cent.[11] And in early 2016 a US study reported that over the last thirty years (among people who had finished high school) the rate of dementia had declined by 44 per cent.[12]

We don’t yet know why these changes are occurring. Better health care explains part of the decline in heart disease and vision problems, but only part. Possibly a lifetime founded on a long period of education helps stave off dementia. When we know more we’ll be able to take steps to reduce age-related disability rates even further.

In the meantime the data on the changes themselves are clear. Increasing numbers of older Australians are, and will be, free of serious health problems and will be able to continue to make a positive contribution to society.

Yes, the ageing of the baby boomers means that we are going have more older people in Australia. The ranks of those aged 65 to 79 will increase over the next 15 years, but more of us will be healthy and able to keep on working in paid jobs, if that’s what we want to do and the jobs are there. Or we will keep on with the volunteer work, helping care for grandchildren and, with luck, doing many other interesting things that we didn’t have time for before.

Katharine Betts was joint-editor of the demographic journal People and Place from 1993 to 2010 and has written widely on demographic topics. She is currently adjunct associate professor of sociology at Swinburne and vice-president of the Australian Population Research Institute.


[1] G. Rushton, ‘Here’s to a long life for Frankie’, The Australian, 6 March 2015, p. 1, 8

[2] F. Anderson, ‘Future tense’, The Australian Financial Review, February 21 2015, p. 16

[3] K. Betts, ‘The ageing of the Australian population: triumph or disaster?’, Centre for Population and Urban Research, Monash University, 2014

[4] Calculated from data in Disabled and Aged Persons, Australia, 1988: Preliminary Results, Catalogue no. 4118.0, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra, 1989, p. 2

[5] Disability, Ageing and Carers: Summary of Findings, Australia 1998, Catalogue no. 4430.0, ABS, Canberra, 1999, p. 4

[8] Healthy life expectancy in Australia: patterns and trends 1998 to 2012: Bulletin 126, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Canberra, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2014

[9] D. S. Jones and J. A. Greene, ‘Is Dementia in Decline? Historical Trends and Future Trajectories’, The New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 374, no. 6, 2016, pp. 507-509

[10] M. Chernew, D. M. Cutler, K. Ghosh and M. B. Landrum, Understanding the improvement in disability free life expectancy in the U.S: Working Paper 22306, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2016

[11] F. E. Matthews, A. Arthur, L. E. Barnes, J. Bond, C. Jagger, L. Robinson and C. Brayne, ‘A two-decade comparison of prevalence of dementia in individuals aged 65 years and older from three geographical areas of England: results of the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study I and II’, The Lancet, vol. 382, no. 2013, pp. 1405- 1412

[12] C. L. Satizabal, A. S. Beiser, V. Chouraki, G. Chêne, C. Dufouil and S. Seshadri, ‘Incidence of dementia over three decades in the Framingham Heart Study’, The New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 374, no. 6, 2016, pp. 523-532

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Australian temporary work visa concessions in the Singapore FTA package

Bob Kinnaird
26 May 2016

Prime Minister Turnbull announced the Australia-Singapore ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ (CSP) on 6 May last, just a few days before he called the 2 July election.

Cynics will suspect the timing and also see the Singapore announcement as something of a consolation prize. The much bigger FTA fish for the Turnbull government was the elusive agreement with India. This was originally promised by the end of 2015 but Special Trade Envoy Mr Robb this week said only that a deal is now possible around mid-2016.

With the CSP announcement, Mr Turnbull can now claim a second FTA on top of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) to match the three North Asian FTAs of his predecessor Mr Abbott. As the Turnbull government’s FTA ‘success’ is trumpeted as a key part of its re-election campaign, this ticks the public relations box.

There are three significant Australian immigration commitments in the Australia-Singapore CSP that probably signal what is coming in the much larger India agreement.

1 Australia’s commitments to ‘waive’ labour market testing (LMT) in the 457 and the 400 visa program
Labour market testing (LMT) means employers have a legal obligation to look for suitably qualified and experienced Australian citizens and permanent residents, and show that none are available, before employers can access temporary visas for foreign workers.

In the 457 visa program, Australia has committed to ‘waive’ LMT for all Singaporean nationals and all ‘intra-corporate transferees’, ie all other foreign nationals who are employees of Singapore-based businesses transferring to an Australian branch of the Singapore-based business.

This LMT waiver will apply to persons in all 651 occupations on the 457-eligible list, including tradespersons and professionals, and Singaporean students studying in Australia.

In the 400 visa program, Australia has similarly committed to ‘waive’ LMT for all Singaporean nationals visaed as ‘installers and servicers of machinery and equipment’.

Australia has also committed not to apply any numerical caps to the number of visas granted to the above categories covered by the 457 and 400 visa commitments.

The LMT waivers and the commitment to no caps will be binding international obligations which effectively cannot be reversed by future Australian governments.

As with the TPP and the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA), these irreversible concessions on the 457 and 400 visas were not publicly disclosed by Prime Minister Turnbull in his lengthy media conference on the CSP. Neither were they disclosed by Immigration Minister Dutton in his media release on immigration measures in the CSP package or the DFAT CSP ‘Fact Sheet: Immigration’ posted on DFAT’s website.

As with the TPP, it was Labor’s Senator Penny Wong who extracted the CSP visa information from DFAT officials at Senate Estimates. This included an admission that ‘the outcomes are broadly consistent with our approach on the TPP’.

Singapore makes up only a tiny fraction of the 457 program – just under one per cent. But that is not the point, which is the incremental removal by stealth of Australian Parliament and government control over key aspects of its main temporary migration programs.

2 Work and Holiday visa program
This program will at least be reciprocal, unlike the one-sided ChAFTA program that provided work and holiday 462 visas to 5,000 young Chinese. The Singapore agreement commences with 500 per year on each side, with increased numbers to be negotiated over time.

The official CSP documentation provides a very misleading description of the 462 visa on which the 500 Singaporean nationals will come to Australia. The DFAT CSP Fact Sheet on Immigration says the 462 visa allows visa-holders to ‘undertake short term work and/or study to supplement their holiday and cultural experience’.

This downplays the role of the 462 visa as a work visa. The fact is the 462 visa allows young foreign nationals to work for the entire 12 months stay in Australia. Many do so or work for most of their stay. The only notional work restriction is 6 months with the one employer, but Immigration policy allows many lawful ways around that visa condition which is poorly regulated anyway.

For example, 462 visa holders working not as direct employees but as so-called ‘independent contractors’ or ‘ABN workers’ can lawfully work for the same employer for 12 months straight, provided they do a few days work ‘on paper’ for someone else. This practice is widespread in industries such as construction and contract cleaning. It undercuts wages and conditions of Australian employees, and contributes to visa-holder exploitation and tax evasion by employers and their visa workers.

From November 2015, the Coalition government has also allowed 462 visa holders in ‘Northern Australia’ to work 12 months with same employer in certain sectors: construction, mining, agriculture and tourism, plus aged and disability care. ‘Northern Australia’ includes all of the Northern Territory and those areas of Western Australia and Queensland above the Tropic of Capricorn – and is a prime target for investment under the Australia-Singapore CSP.

A prudent Australian government would place a moratorium on any more Work and Holiday visa agreements with other countries, until this temporary visa program has been thoroughly cleaned up. The abuses of this visa program have been well documented in the media and a Senate inquiry for more than two years. Instead the Turnbull government will probably continue to use the program as a bargaining chip in trade and investment deals.

3 A Pilot Internship Program for Singaporean Students
This immigration measure is a new feature in an Australian FTA package and is potentially a far-reaching one.

The DFAT CSP documentation says ‘a pilot internship program will aim to give 100 Singaporeans studying in Australia more internship opportunities with leading Australian companies’ but gave no more details.

Senator Richard Colbeck, Minister for Tourism and International Education, provided this:

‘Singapore and Australia have agreed a pilot internship program which will aim to give 100 Singaporeans studying in Australia more internship opportunities with leading Australian companies….

‘The agreement also provides opportunities for Singaporean students to gain work experience in Australia.

‘Australia will be seeking to include similar agreements in other trade arrangements to enhance our opportunities to grow international education – further building on the National Strategy for International Education 2025 released last week.’

A pilot program for only 100 Singaporeans in Australia might sound minor. But the Minister’s words imply we can expect something similar for India shortly, with others to follow. Based on overseas student numbers, Australia could be offering India up to 500 additional internships, not just 100.

So far no Turnbull government Minister has explained what the Australian government will actually do to meet the agreed aim of more internship and work experience opportunities in Australia for Singaporeans; or crucially whether the ‘internships’ and ‘work experience in Australia’ will involve paid or unpaid work.

The Turnbull government currently has a problem on its hands with its proposed PaTH ‘internships’ for unemployed young people. Under these arrangements, young people would be paid $4 an hour on top of their social security payment to do an internship placement with a prospective employer.

It could have another problem with these internships for overseas students if the Professional Year Program (PYP), outlined below, is any guide to the Coalition’s intentions.

Senator Colbeck said the internships arrangement will be reciprocal, and ‘more than 700 Australian students will study and undertake internships in Singapore in the first three years of the New Colombo Plan (2014-16).’ The number of Australian students undertaking internships (vs study) in Singapore is not known, nor are the terms and conditions of these Singapore-based ‘internships’ including whether they will be paid or unpaid.

Domestic political considerations in Singapore may influence the scale and nature of these internships for Australian students. As in Australia, there is considerable community concern in Singapore about government policies allowing foreign workers access to the domestic job market.

As one member of the Singapore elite said, ‘It’s your PMETs, the professionals, managers and executives and technical people who worry that foreigners are prepared to come in to work for less pay and they (Singaporeans) are marginalised’ (Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee, chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, interview with Singapore Prime Minister Lee, 2 August 2015).

Professional Year Program (PYP)
The PYP is an Australian government-endorsed scheme and has operated since 2008 for overseas student graduates from Australian universities who cannot make up sufficient points for a points-tested skilled permanent resident visa. These graduates are granted a 485 temporary visa and do a program of around 44 weeks duration. The PYP fee ranges from around $9,000 to $12,300 per participant.

The program includes an ‘unpaid internship’ of around 12 weeks, for a minimum of around 220-240 hours or so. Given that participants actually pay money to do the PYP, the ‘unpaid internship’ is really an internship that the participant pays for – between $2,500 and $3,400 (based on 12 out of 44 weeks, or 27% of the total PYP fees).

The PYP is currently only available in accounting, IT and engineering. Around 2,000 485 visa-holders undertake the PYP each year, the majority (over 60%) in accounting followed by IT. According to a 2010 survey, around 70% of PYP graduates find professional-level employment, often with the company providing the Internship.

The PYP program is highly contentious because of the 12 weeks ‘unpaid internship’. It will be even more so if the government intends to expand these programs as part of its international education strategy, commencing with Singaporean students and commitments written into international economic agreements. This will set up even more intense competition with Australian graduates for entry-level graduate jobs. Employment outcomes for Australian graduates have been deteriorating. Between 2008 to 2015, the proportion of new bachelor degree graduates in full-time employment 4 months after graduating has fallen from 85% to 67%.

This apparently is exactly the Turnbull government’s plan. One ‘Key theme’ in its National Strategy for International Education 2025 is: ‘employability – to provide greater opportunities for work, integrated learning and internships for international students’.

The Coalition government should have a fight on its hands over its shift in international education provision to more work-based arrangements, with no regard for adverse impacts on Australian graduates. It will have its first fight if it expands ‘internships’ for international students and graduates, especially if they are unpaid as in the PYP.

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Bob Kinnaird is Research Associate with The Australian Population Research Institute and was National Research Director CFMEU National Office 2009-14.

An earlier version of this blog was first posted on John Menadue’s blogsite Pearls and Irritations.