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Madonna King: The intergenerational report seems like fiction, but imagine if we learn from it

Companies routinely have a target customer in mind. Sometimes it’s a teen with a growing spending capacity, or Baby Boomers with money to burn.

Sometimes it’s even more specific.

The target reader for one media organisation where I worked many years ago even gave their target reader a name: Katherine McWilliam. We were told to write with her in mind; a woman in her 30s, with a couple of kids, juggling a professional career with a like-minded husband.

It hard not to think of how the ‘average’ Australian might look and live and change over the next 40 years, if you scan the Albanese government’s intergenerational report, delivered on Thursday.

An ageing population will help prompt a shift to a caring economy, climate change will become a bigger and bigger factor, as will an explosion in digital technologies and a fragmentation in the global order.

If we think the smartphone and anxiety are defining issues of the current generation of teenagers and young adults, perhaps we should really feel for their children and grandchildren.

They are set to navigate a world even more difficult to picture than the world our own grandparents might have imagined today.

Of course, the intergenerational report – released every five years, although this one is only a couple of years after its 2021 predecessor – points out the direction we are heading, and allows government policy to be moulded accordingly.

Our growing maturity throws up heaps of positives too.

We’ll live longer and be healthier into old age, be paid better and will benefit from the global transition to net-zero carbon emissions. With decades of warning, perhaps we’ll also be better placed to combat the complexities of both the digital world, and a world where work will undergo fundamental reform.

Fertility rates will continue to fall, and the median age of Australians will jump by almost five years by 2063 – to 43.1 years old.

Our recent surplus might be the only one delivered for decades, with deficits expected for the next 40 years and the National Disability Insurance Scheme, health, aged care and defence will remain the weighty spending pressures.

But Treasurer Dr Jim Chalmers says the report will be the impetus for tweaks – not any overhaul.

And faced with Opposition claims that voters are more worried about the next 40 days than the next 40 years, Chalmers was careful to keep the focus on cost-of-living pressures, which are upending our grocery bills, car expenses and even holiday plans.

He’s right to do that, but it’s also worthwhile to look at what’s around the next corner, and how we might change policy levers to address that.

A criticism made of past intergenerational reports is that they are not independent enough; that they should be taken outside government and researched and authored through that prism.

That would be worthwhile, but so is the document which chronicles our challenges, and even the opportunities that sit among them.

It’s a pity, in many ways, that it’s not even wider, and inclusive of those trajectories that could change our lives in other ways.

Imagine, if in 40 years, cancer was in the rear-vision mirror and our commitment to that – in funding and policy, appointments and strategy – was directed at that.

Imagine if melanoma was a word we used to use, particularly in relation to young people.

Imagine if heart disease was a bump along life’s highway in 2063, not a dead end, as it is for too many families in 2023.

Imagine if the road toll plummeted with the advent of AI.

And crime too, so that we were locking up the bad guys, rather than our own families each night.

Imagine if we could disrupt our thinking to ensure the mental health challenges in 2023, delivered in part by the pandemic, were muted in 2063.

Imagine if we could even forecast the next pandemic or superbug or economic catastrophe and have the policies to combat it, ready to enact.

Of course, the intergenerational report is a piece of non-fiction. And much of what I’m imagining remains firmly in the fiction category.

But just imagine, if we could combine the two. Now, that would be a legacy for our grandchildren, and their grandchildren too.

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