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Tracey Spicer: Age discrimination is real

It was trip to the shops, much like any other.

The trolley was pregnant with produce: leafy greens, pink ladies, and shiny strawberries.

The kids were fighting over counter treats, as I fantasised about escaping to a deserted island.

Suddenly, I noticed an elderly woman inspecting our bounty.

Her features were a film: Scene 1, full of wonder; Scene 2, a flash of envy; Scene 3, lips pursed in irritation.

“Is that all for the one family?” she asked, snappily.

I eyed her humble handful of parsnips, onion, and spinach. Inexplicably, I felt ashamed.

“Er, I guess, I mean, yeah,” I stuttered. “The kids love their veggies, which is a good thing. Makes it a lot easier at dinnertime,” I chortled, a poor impersonation of a suburban housewife.

Author, Tracey Spicer.

She didn’t say a word. I guess she didn’t need to. Her look said it all: “If only I could afford such luxuries.”

My instinct was to snatch something – anything – from the trolley to give to her. But I knew she wouldn’t want pity.

How had it come to this?

What kind of society treats its elders this way?

When will it dawn on us that those in the dusk of their lives deserve more?

It’s worth reflecting on, as the federal government tries to increase the pension age to 70 by 2035, and lower the indexation rate for adjustments.

Labor is blocking the move, while crossbench Senators negotiate with Social Services Minister Scott Morrison.

“Why can’t they go back to work?” I hear you cry.

That’s fine for keyboard warriors, like me, who push pens for a living.

But anyone who’s worked in a physical job – as a nurse, hairdresser, or bricklayer – knows the body simply wears out.

Treasurer Joe Hockey says the May budget will include changes to the Restart scheme, in which employers earn $10,000 for hiring someone over the age of 50.

Apparently, the scheme is, “vastly undersubscribed”.

Let me translate that: businesses don’t want older workers.

A new report by the Human Rights Commission reveals more than a quarter of 50+ employees experience age-based discrimination.

It’s worse for older women, many of whom are trying to break back in after decades of caring responsibilities.

According to Industry Super Australia, women retire with $90,000 less than men, and 29% of women over 65 live below the poverty line.

Ellen Degeneres was a paralegal and an oyster shucker before becoming one of the most recognisable faces in the world.

Perhaps we should put a monetary value on caring.

In the UK, grandparents receive pension credits for providing unpaid childcare. Sex Discrimination Commissioner Liz Broderick wants a similar scheme here.

But I worry about which international example we will follow.

Will we be like the Americans, cutting the safety net until folks are forced to line up for food stamps?

Or will we look towards Scandinavia, with support from cradle to grave?

During a trip to the US recently, we watched in horror as tens of thousands took to the streets, fighting for a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

At the moment, most are on $8 an hour.

They work behind the counter at Walmart then line up for food stamps (which are spent in their employer’s stores) before clocking on to their night job.

This is no way to live.

In the lead-up to the May budget, these are the conversations we should be having.

Looking back, I wish I had given that woman the entire contents of my trolley.

“Oh, I’m sure she’s got a family who can look after her. Gee, she’s had a rough trot. I hope someone can help.”

All of these thoughts go through our minds, as we bounce along in our middle class bubbles.

What’s missing is the everyday humanity.

Perhaps it’s time to burst those bubbles.

Tracey Spicer is one of the most versatile journalists in the country. She is an Ambassador for ActionAid, World Vision, Life’s Little Treasures, QUT’s Learning Potential Fund, Purple Our World, the Garvan Institute, and Cancer Council NSW.
You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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