Sunday, January 28, 2007

World’s oldest person takes on actuaries, and loses

Centenarians may be the world’s fastest-growing demographic, and supercentenarians (those aged 110+) now quite common, but centeenarians (113+) are, just like adolescents on their first lap of the clock, a troublesome age-group.

Centeenarians get this label not for having wild mood-swings etc, but because of their propensity for dying just when the going starts to get good – i.e. the “world’s oldest person” title seems within reach.

Barring a handful of women in the last few decades, 115 is pretty much the wall when it comes to long life. Despite improvements in medicine, and the much larger numbers just a few years younger down the line, this age “wall” has barely budged for decades. As a boy reading the Guinness Book of Records in the mid-1970s, I remember the world’s oldest person title being a disappointingly close tussle between a bunch of 113-and-a-bit year olds. While a few stand-outs, most notably Jeanne Calment, who died at 122 in 1997, have since smashed the old wall-at-113, there remains a strong cluster of drop-offs at an only slightly older mark, of 114 and 115.

The proof in the pudding here is that since last week, the world’s oldest person has been the merely 114 (and a little bit) year old Emma Tillman, born on 22 November 1892. What seems likely is that Emma will hold this title to 115, but only if she’s a stayer, and then it will pass on to another 114 or 115 year-old for a few months, ad infinitum barring the occasional super-stayer.

I’m sure this demographic outer-limit of around 115 must be cheering to actuaries, sweating over defined-benefit superannuation plans*, and annuities written long ago.

Jeanne Calment buffs will remember her supreme actuary-trumping annuity deal, in which in 1965, aged 90, she traded her capital for a regular income, the annual sum of which was one-tenth her capital – then lived for another 32 years.

As an extremely risk-averse Xer, Calment’s annuity-stretching seems to me a noble act of thrift, and that rare thing to begin with: a bet that feels psychologically safe.

In contrast, HECS and defined-contribution superannuation – those hallmarks of Xer life – are perverse bets. Unless one does very well – way above the middle – or very poorly, they are losing bets. Currently, this is more clearly seen with HECS – a person who graduates in law (say) with a $40,000 debt (that’s for a nominally taxpayer “subsidised” place) will be in the worst of all possible worlds if s/he always earns around the HECS minimum repayment threshold (currently about $38,000 annually). The debt will be repaid in full, but the graduate will be actuarially worse off by hundreds of thousands of dollars, assuming (as seems likely) that their degree did not bump up their earnings, and taking into account income forgone while studying.

With defined-contribution superannuation, there will be a similar troubling softness in the middle when Xers start to retire. A typical, and median, Xer super balance at 65 might be $150k (2006 dollars). Unless Xers will not generally live past 75, such a lump-sum is trifling as a retirement income stream conversion, compared to what even the old-age pension currently provides.

Faced with these perverse bets, in which one must run either first or last to win, my hunch is that many Xers (certainly myself) have done the naturally risk-averse thing, and aimed low.

* Such plans were always mostly closed to Xers, but boomers are now no doubt gearing up to pillage them in retirement, as they have pillaged everything else on the planet they ever touched.

Sidebar: Boomer cannot think of less-offensive metaphor for shafting Xers than “nigger” one

This is hilarious – and I so hope that the 54 year-old Australian-born Trevor Matthews gets sacked for it (and in turn there might be a new book here for Helen Garner, "shocked" at my "vindictiveness"). I think Matthews most probably indeed is not a racist, but that nothing can absolve him for his not having a sufficiently rehearsed, glib explanation as to why his company’s modification of its defined-benefit plan (i.e. shafting post-boomers, presumably) was buried in the footnotes of a company report.

My Shorter Oxford defines “nigger in the woodpile” as “a concealed motive or unknown factor affecting situation in an adverse way”. The irony is that actuarially there is nothing concealed or unknown about shafting post-boomers within, if not locking them wholly out of, defined-benefit superannuation plans. On the contrary, this little nigger is naked and alone in the flat field.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Banning the Sydney Big Day Out?

I feel sorry for the (boomer!) promoters of the BDO. After an unhappy recent legal stoush with eBay, in which the BDO was mainly representing its customers’ best interests and not its own, this morning NSW Premier Iemma was muttering on breakfast TV about banning the Sydney show, scheduled for this Thursday. (The BDO Sydney Showgrounds venue is quasi-publicly owned. Federal parliamentary secretary for immigration Andrew Robb also this morning called for the Sydney BDO’s banning, but presumably only rhetorically – if he meant to imply the banning of the overseas acts from entering the country, he was too late.)

A few hours later, the show appears set to go on. It would be a shame, however, if Morris Iemma’s ugly threat is quickly forgotten. Quite apart from the underlying issue of the Australian flag’s current political baggage, Iemma has shown himself as a populist who will do almost anything – anything – to appease the tabloid barrators and brayers. Another name for this is “fascism”.

On the underlying issue, my own feelings are surmised here: the Australian flag is, post Cronulla riots, a stupid medieval rag. I would insert a contextual qualification, however. Just as the Nazi swastika has some non-offensive uses – such as on the set of The Producers – so does the Australian flag. But being worn by White youth at a Sydney youth event is clearly not a non-offensive such use – its meaning here is as subtle as a swastika spray-painted on a synagogue.

Update 24 January 2007

In today’s Oz, John Birmingham takes up the anti-BDO cause, with a rather off anti-boomer rant. I say “off” because Birmingham is an Xer through and through (a few weeks younger than me), yet his OpEd ends as a self-immolating paean to GenY, aka the Howard Youth. I have no idea why Birmingham thinks that boomers’ ingrate teenage spawn – rather than his and my generation – are the natural enemy of boomers. Xers of course resemble neither of their next-door cohorts; in turn boomers and GenY have more in common than they usually care to admit. Maybe Birmingham is having a mid-life crisis, or maybe he has just had one too many bucket bongs.

Also today’s Oz is a strong suite of letters to the ed, most of which tacitly endorse the BDO’s apprehensiveness about the Australian flag. Philip Cole reminds us that the English flag was similarly commandeered for a period by that country's far Right. The difference is that England launched a grass-roots “reclaim the flag” campaign in response – while Australia’s response has been the opposite; viz any use of the flag (including being worn by drunken, violent thugs at a rock concert) is automatically a noble thing, and anyone who says otherwise is Howard-hating scum.

Michael Swifte’s letter also has a choice turn of phrase:

“The BDO organisers’ decision to discourage flag-wearers stems from the fashion of wearing the flag as a kind of super-hero cape that started at the Cronulla riots in December 2005”.

I do believe it was Nietzsche who drew the first antecedents between super-hero capes and fascism.

Update 28 January 2007

“Birmo” asks in the comments:

"What did we x-ers ever achieve?"

I give a bit of a smart-arse answer in a reply comment, but more speculatively, and less wearing my Year-12-debating (if my school had had it) hat, I’d suggest Xers do, and have done sadness better that any other generation in human history.

Akin to a lopsided version of rock/paper/scissors, sadness trumps everything else.

Better yet, we Xers have a bottomless reservoir of the stuff. Don’t worry about saving it up, all you Xers, hoarding it like you’re boomer property investors gloating over Xer tenants and locked-out would-be purchasers.

So spread the sadness round. Yes, you can howl for days and days, and there will still be plenty more on tap.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Flowering-arranging the unkillable weed – reporting Australian workforce participation rates

As I’ve previously written, Australia has an appallingly low labour-force participation rate for men aged 25 to 44; i.e. mainly, but not exclusively Xer men. Fully 9% slip through the cracks; albeit a small number of these would be at-home dads. (The officially unemployed, meanwhile, are part of the 91%). In 1980, only 4% of this male age cohort were NILFs.

Last week, the Productivity Commission published a report (PDF) on Australia’s workforce participation rates vis a vis OECD averages and rankings. The report itself does a pretty good job of burying the worst of the bad news:

Over the period 1980 to 2005, the overall workforce participation rate for males declined from 78.3 to 72.1 per cent. There was, however, variable changes in participation rates across the age groups. The largest decline occurred in the 55 to 59 age group — a decline of 7.5 percentage points, whereas for men aged between 60 and 64 years, participation increased by 3.1 percentage points.

In fact, a glance at figure 2.4 of the Report shows an overall quite even decline, between 1980 and 2000, for men in all age groups between 15 and 59. But never mind that: by widening the five-year age sliver of the “winning” 55 to 59 age group to an amorphous, but boomer-centric, “over 50”, the PC manages to be PC: thus it trots out the old rustbelts’n’early-retirement explanation for male labour-force participation decline, one that doesn’t even begin to explain the shocking plight of Xer men:

Factors underlying the trend toward lower participation rates in men over 50 include:

• slower employment growth in industries traditionally employing full-time male workers, such as utilities, mining and manufacturing industries; and

• a trend towards early retirement, although since 2002 there has been some moderation in the decline

What the PC started, the media finished, a la the Oz’s Samantha Maiden further burying the plight of Xer men. In preparing her article on the PC Report, Maiden apparently wholly missed the part (= half) dealing with men, despite the comparative OECD stat for men aged 25 to 54* ranking worse – 23 (25) out of 30 – than the stat she chose to zoom in on: participation among women aged 25-44 years, for which Australia’s comparative OECD stat is 20 (23) out of 30. (Figures in brackets are the “unadjusted” ones from Chapter 3 of the Report; while the first-given ones are those “adjusted” as found in Chapter 5. For whatever reason, Maiden cites only the unadjusted (= direr) one in her mono-gendered analysis.)

My beef with Maiden isn’t just a gender-balance, “what about the blokes?” thing. The gendered stat she chooses to focus on is also tiresomely explicable and predictable. Australian social security is (or was until very recently) comparatively very generous to single parents, in terms of age of youngest child at which the recipient parent must start to look for work (until recently 16, while OECD norm is 6). Australia’s participation black-hole among women aged 25-44 years is now being fixed, then – and it was only ever a natural byproduct of social security largesse.

In contrast, Australia’s participation black-hole among men aged 25-44 years has no apparent connection with social security largesse, and shows little sign of even being acknowledged as a problem, let alone fixed.

* The PC Report doesn’t give further breakdowns within this age range for men. My guess is that this is because the 45-54 (boomer) male cohort is actually doing relatively well (despite the supposed travails of the “over 50s”). By lumping these in with Xer men, the averages are therefore brought up; aka the Xer abyss is papered over.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Helen Darville-Demidenko, and where are all the Australian Xer lit-fic authors?

In today’s Oz*. Imre Salusinszky runs a mostly standard boomer-conservative view on the causes of, and remedies for, the decline in Australian-authored literary fiction since the mid-1980s. Viz, if only universities focused more on literary canons, and less on pomo/cultural studies, more Ye Olde Style reader-consumers would increase the demand for Australian lit-fic, or at least backlist stuff.

Even ignoring the absence of frontlist/fresh lit-fic from this supposed panacea, it’s a superficial argument. Lurking close beneath is a grisly old bone: generationalism, and in particular some unfinished boomer-vs-Xer business from the mid-1990s. Salusinszky indirectly admits as much, in taking a swipe at Mark Davis (author of Gangland (1997)) over the cause of – but not the fact of – Australian lit-fic’s decline:

“The real crime of Davis’s band of oldies was not their years but the fact that each of them, in his her own fashion, had dared question some element of the groupthink that dominates our intellectual culture.”

Yes, Salusinszky really is asserting that boomers are/were the iconoclastic outlaws of Australian letters. Which makes Xers the conformists/PC-disciples, I assume – despite the fact that boomers get – in the mid-90s as now – almost all the lit crit column inches, and that lit-fic’s decline has had disproportionate impact on Xer (would-be) authors. In other words, Xers have – improbably, somehow – loudly doomed themselves to their own eternal silence in a black-hole of groupthink from which nothing – of publishable quality – escapes.

Admittedly, Mark Davis did no favour to Xers in this regard by repeatedly hoisting Xers’ colours to the PC/pomo/DIY mast in Gangland. Student, as opposed to teacher ownership of pomo – very few Xers were academics in the mid-1990s – is an odd claim to make, albeit Davis indiscriminately throws “good” boomer academics like Meaghan Morris and McKenzie Wark into his Xercentric progressivist soup-mix. On balance, Davis unmistakably hands over a poisoned, boomer-crafted chalice to Xers, on an utter “no returns” basis.

The poisoned chalice Xers vicariously got – being held responsible for the worst excesses of the Western boomer cultural revolution, despite never having been in charge of anything germane or strategic – is exemplified in Davis’s peculiar# defence of Helen Darville-Demidenko’s The hand that signed the paper. Just because Helen D-D was an Xer conspicuously bullied by some** boomers, it doesn’t make her a suitable, and still less an exemplary, Xer martyr.

In fact, a decade and a bit after the Demidenko affair, the whole thing smells like a cynical boomer set-up. That is, Darville-Demidenko – consciously or otherwise, I don’t know, or particularly care – so spectacularly shat in the nest of Xer lit-fic that almost nothing and no one has been able to live in there again, to this day. Game set and match to the boomers.

The shame is then that Darville-Demidenko (now Helen Dale) has still not been properly held to account for what she did, despite – or because of – all the boomer-vs-boomer column inches under the bridge. Davis devotes half a page (p 222) to Darville-Demidenko, as lone human agent rather than PC/pomo in general, being the main issue at stake but then necessarily quickly moves on.

For Davis – a boomer writing an anti-boomer screed – a slippery martyr manque is a good Xer martyr, and there are few if any Xers who have so trashed their generation’s authorial reputation for so few shekels## as Helen Dale.

* “Left for dead over lit crit” Australian 13 January 2007

** Boomers were also Darville-Demidenko’s loudest commentariat supporters: Peter Craven (at first), Miles Franklin judges David Marr and Jill Kitson, and Andrew Riemer. Davis’s labelling Darville-Demidenko’s critics as “the bulk of the [boomer hegemon] literary community” (Gangland pp 218) is perverse. Where Xers managed to get a word in – Guy Rundle and Gideon Haigh did, at least – they had only unkind words for their age peer Darville-Demidenko.

# Davis’s defence is certainly not unqualified (Gangland pp 213, 226), but it is oddly passionate and prolix. His strongest point is contrasting the critical reception of THTSTP with Helen Garner’s The first stone – another controversial work of faction published in the mid-90s, but this time boomer-authored, and not at all coincidentally, near-universally praised by the boomer commentariat. Davis then undermines his own argument, however:

“But the questions that were asked of The hand that signed the paper weren’t asked of The first stone, even if, as it turned out, many of the protagonists in both debates were the same”.

Here, Davis is saying that THTSTP’s essential controversy – its naked anti-Semitism – is on a par with Garner’s bitchy dissing of two young/Xer women for being PC wowsers in their response to real-life sexual harassment. Apart from their divergent scale, the two controversies widely differ in that anti-Semitism has no generational angle whatsoever, while The first stone was nothing but ugly boomer bullying of Xers.

## Or more accurately, a deposit on a house in Rockhampton, as Frank Devine gormlessly informed us in yesterday’s Oz.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

"The Baby Boomers Will Soon Retire" – enter the new new economy

I’m not quite sure what Mark Bahnisch means here, after quoting the first part of the above headline, but as it happens, boomer mass retirement over the next two decades is a topic I’ve been meaning to write on for a while.

In a nutshell, capital is going to come back into fashion with a vengeance. Think of the era, and typical scenarios, of Jane Austen and then double it. Soon, wage/salary income, as it has been understood for the last hundred years or so won’t exist; service (with varying degrees of indenture) will be its effective replacement. The change here will not only be sudden, it will be widely lauded as a good thing. If you think I’m exaggerating, read this letter from Martha Farnsworth Riche:

[T]he media has misrepresented what America's “young” economy will look like. People over 45 have more discretionary income than younger people. It is the older generation's spending, on more health care and travel but fewer flashy gadgets, that will create jobs and be the impetus of the new economy.

Yes, she actually uses the phrase “new economy”. Without any irony, or other rhetorical context, I’m pretty sure.

Lordy lordy, forget for a moment Jane Austen’s time, when capital meant frills, and plain calico for the best of the rest. Instead imagine a health-care driven, hi-tech gerontocracy - think Davros from “Doctor Who” - wizened half-human, half-bots who can come across as defenceless old dears – but only immediately prior to channelling some fresh outrage over some poor service they have received. Self-righteous-millionaires-over-50 are already a tabloid TV staple.

Admittedly, Farnsworth Riche’s letter doesn’t use the “capital” word (“discretionary income” is disingenuously used in lieu), and it avoids being boomer-retirement specific. But in her reference to over-45s (many of which will still be saddled with university-age (or younger) children, but almost all of whom will have made a killing in residential real estate) she is clearly talking up the boomer-retirement economy. As an Austeneque vignette, she could be drawing a tidy, well-provisioned ship whose access ladder has been permanently drawn up.

Coincidentally, in the same edition of the Economist as Farnsworth Riche’s letter is an OpEd article giving a solid, bar one thing, anti-boomer venting to, inter alia, the dwindling of defined-benefit superannuation (“pension” in the UK) schemes and house-price inflation in times of low CPI inflation. The article’s glitch is in its presupposing of the immediate post-boomer generation as being boomers’ children. Umm, Ryan Heath is boomer spawn. And I – along with 99% of the mid-1960s-born – most certainly am not

Australia’s dismantling of defined-benefit superannuation since the mid-1980s has been even more swingeing than in the UK, yet has attracted curiously little attention, despite its patent intergenerational injustice*. Instead, a trillion-dollar funds-management industry has grown up, around the rather bizarre concept that a lump sum of $300k – at most – is going to see a GenXer on average earnings (and with 40 years of uninterrupted labour) through their retirement.

The key point here is not the actuarial inadequacy of the lump sum, but that the industry never ever breaks down Xer superannuation into defined-benefit equivalent income streams. Without this calculation, superannuation is meaningless – a tax dodge for rich (with it or without it) boomers, who could always sell some spare real estate in the unlikely event that they couldn’t fall back on the old-age pension, but a stupid con on GenXers – who are usually without any other fall-back or safety net.

I’ll leave the penultimate word on Australia’s superannuation deforms to one of their prime instigators: our very own Margaret Thatcher, aka Paul Keating:

I have always thought that owning the home was fine, but being able to share . . . in the stock market was a way of the ordinary mums and dads having a share in the bounty”.

Umm, HECS, labour casualisation and real estate inflation together mean that Xer home-ownership has largely gone out the window. Not to mention, talking of "ordinary mums and dads", decimating my generation’s fertility/procreation rates. For f*ing over GenXers and then dumbly boasting about it, take a bow, Paul Keating.

If my life is a “bounty”, bring on the mutiny.

* In a nice piece of Obscene Boomer Hubris, Oz journo Alan Wood recently suggested that the Future Fund (which notionally funds boomer-and-older defined-benefit superannuation payouts for decades to come, until the last boomer dies) is unfair to baby boomers, specifically.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Pria Viswalingam’s “Decadence”

To say that this SBS interview-panel doco heavily relies on baby-boomer experts is an understatement. Every person in this list gleaned from an SBS website – and Viswalingam himself – is a boomer, or a bit older:

Richard Eckersley, Clive Hamilton, Ian Kiernan, Robert Manne, John Marsden, Catharine Lumby, Commissioner Ken Moroney, Archibishop Peter Jensen, Cardinal George Pell and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

To the list can be added Governor-General Michael Jeffrey, ex-Premier Jeff Kennett and Professor Marian Sawer.

Viswalingham’s apparent severe allergy to anyone born after 1961 aside, I am happy to give this show a big thumbs-up. Oh and apart from the show’s inclusion of serial Xer-phobe Clive Hamilton and his apparent comrade-in-arms, ANU academic Richard Eckersley, also.

Intentionally or otherwise, the show’s boomercentricity ultimately serves as a big fat boomer mea culpa. We stuffed up, the show positively screams. Agreed. There’s really nothing else to say – a good epitaph is a short epitaph.

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