Unprepared For Ageing

Today the media is awash with stories of workforce shortages across many sectors and, whilst I recognise the pain this is causing, I can’t help but reflect on our tendency (at all levels) towards short-termism.  These labour shortages, by and large, are the result of a closed border policy at state and federal level which, at most, will last another 6-12 months.  In the meantime, as a result of decades long neglect and despite numerous reports, the aged care sector is in crisis because the workforce it has cannot meet even current demand let alone the future needs.  Further, Western Australia has no targeted aged care workforce plan for a sector which relies directly on human power to care for our most vulnerable.

I shouldn’t be surprised.  As a society we are still uncomfortable with mortality and disturbed by notions that we might age one day too.  The power of the grey vote is yet to play out and, for those uninterested in the moral imperative associated with looking after our elderly, there is still widescale ignorance of the fact that the Western Australian aged care sector is a heavy hitter when it comes to social and economic contribution:  For every $1 of federal funding received, the sector delivers $2.11 in social and economic impact.  A story for another time.

This flight to short-termism is a sizeable issue for baby-boomers who need workforce now.  However, if nothing is done, the real pain will be borne by Gen X’ers, the first of whom will hit retirement age in 9 years.  Most of us will live to a ripe old age.  If we want to age with dignity and in a manner of our choosing (whether that be at home or in residential care) then we’ll need a veritable army of nurses and care workers, a well-trained, engaged and caring workforce.  Without them, no matter how well-off we are as individuals, we are each destined to a sub-standard quality of life as we age.  Yet, the workforce we have cannot meet even the current demand let alone the future needs of a population projected to grow by 40% by 2026 and then more.  In fact, a whopping 34% of older households in 2018 said their care needs were not fully met and in 2020 there were an estimated 22,000 vacancies for care workers and nurses across the sector nationally.

Partly this is due to demographics, the ratio of working people (and therefore available workforce) is shrinking rapidly as compared to the number of people requiring care.  However, it should be no surprise that we can’t find people prepared to work in the sector given the backbreaking work, low status, lack of career progression and low pay afforded to aged care workers.  Why would you?  Like our elderly, we still don’t value them as we should. 

Sadly, the situation is dire and getting worse.  CEDA has estimated that there will be a shortfall of 110,000+ workers by 2030 (and a 400,000 shortage by 2050) if the things don’t change and assuming only a basic standard of care is required.  That is at least 17,000 extra workers (net) are required every year just to maintain status quo in a sector already ‘broken’ according to the Aged Care Royal Commission. This isn’t exactly going to be the ‘Golden Age’ Gen X’ers are expecting.

Whilst there is no silver bullet, the solution does not just sit with the federal government and the aged care sector.  We must also see leadership from the State government in the development a collaborative, strategic and targeted workforce plan co-designed with the sector which looks at training, education, upskilling, leadership development, regional and remote services, carers and volunteers.

What happens if we don’t get this right?  Well, it will be Gen X that will pay the price, when, for love or money, they can’t get the support they want or need as they age.