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Families paying the price of a new financial order

Date

Alexandra Smith, Rachel Browne, Cosima Marriner

The budget is set to make life harder for those caught between supporting dependent children and caring for elderly parents.

Stephanie Cunio with her three children.

Stephanie Cunio with her three children. Photo: Lidia Nikonova

Life just got a little squeezier for people in middle age. Already wedged between the demands of paid work, dependent children and ageing parents, changes forecast by this week's federal budget have forced them firmly into the ''heavy lifting'' corner.

With educational expenses set to increase, the kids are likely to stay in the family home longer. At the same time, support for their elderly parents has been whittled down. They'll be paying more to see a doctor and more to fill up the car while their family tax benefits diminish. Oh, and if they happen to be born after 1965, they will be working until they're 70 before they can get the age pension.

There is no respite for generation squeeze, with pressures simply mounting for people in their 40s and 50s, and women generally doing the heaviest lifting of all, according to Graeme Hugo, director of the Australian Population and Migration Research Centre at the University of Adelaide.

''The load falls disproportionately on these women who straddle the younger baby boomers and the older Gen X-ers,'' he said. ''They have multiple demands on them.''

His observation is supported by the findings from the Australian Work and Life Index, compiled by the University of South Australia's Centre for Work + Life.

Women aged 35 to 44 have the worst work-life balance, but those who are carers for both children and others fare worst of all.

Sara Charlesworth, associate professor at the Centre for Work + Life, said this group was already pushed to the limit with changes flagged in the budget expected to weigh heavily.

''These people are always rushed and pressed for time because they are juggling multiple responsibilities,'' she said.

''That affects their capacity for social interaction, relaxation, exercise. All that gets pushed aside.

''Now we have government policy which is withdrawing financial support at the same time as it's creating an extra care burden for families who will be expected to absorb that.''

Stephanie Cunio, who with her partner Andrew Scarborough has three children aged between four and 11, knows what it's like to juggle multiple responsibilities.

The Sydney couple provide much of the care for Ms Cunio's 84-year-old mother, who is in an aged-care hostel.

Ms Cunio spends time with her mother about three times a week and has changed her working week so she is at home one day a week to care for her - as well as to make it easier to get their school-aged daughters to after-school activities. Ms Cunio and her brother were also caring for their 93-year-old father until he died last December.

Ms Cunio, who has a senior professional job, said she was juggling work, three children and an elderly parent.

''I am very lucky that I have an employer who is very understanding, but it is a squeeze,'' Ms Cunio, 47 said.

Mr Scarborough said they were now expecting a future where they would be caring for their children for another 20 years.

''I won't be retiring at 55, that's for sure,'' said Mr Scarborough, 46. ''The budget has definitely made it feel like our kids will be living at home until they are 30.''

Mr Scarborough hopes his children will go to university but fears that it will be beyond their reach now that fees will be deregulated.

''What they are doing to higher education is absolutely terrible,'' he said.

The chief technology officer with an app advertising company said he would love the option of retraining down the track but it would seem like ''a luxury'' if uni fees were going to skyrocket.

''It would be one thing to retrain if it was $30,000 but not if it was going to be $100,000,'' he said.

Lyn Craig, of the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW, said the budget sent a clear message to those in middle age: they will be increasingly responsible for supporting generations on either side.

''It really made explicit [the government's] expectation that families be responsible for the economic welfare of their children up until they're 30,'' she said. ''In the later stages of life it seems to assume you'll be self-sufficient longer.''

The average age at which young people leave the nest has been steadily increasing for decades, with women moving out about 25 and men staying put until the age of 26.

Deborah Cobb-Clark, the director of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, predicted that this trend would continue, but the young were more likely to expect more financial support.

''Kids are reliant on their families for much longer,'' she said.

''They are living at home for longer. They are relying on financial support from their parents to get them through university. That's a worldwide trend.

''That's because parents are investing more in their children's education. It's also because the housing market is increasingly difficult to access. It takes longer for younger people to afford to live independently.''

While the kids create financial pressure, caring for the older generation requires time.

''It is a real challenge for these people,'' Professor Cobb-Clark said.

''The kids are about money. The kids are continuing to suck up tonnes of cash but they don't need that much time. The older parents require time but they don't need as much financial support. They really do require a lot of time and effort and care.''

Professor Cobb-Clark notes employers are far more likely to be sympathetic to the needs of workers who take time off to look after their children than they are to people who need to leave early to drive an elderly parent to a doctor's appointment.

''We don't have any labour market institutions that support middle-aged workers to assist their parents,'' he said.

''Whatever you think about how hard it is for parents with young children, we do have childcare, we do have parental leave, employers are fairly sensitive to the fact that their employees are trying to balance work with raising young children.

''It would be much less common for employers to be sensitive to the fact that many of their employees would be attempting to provide similar care to ageing parents.''

The demands of looking after the wellbeing of two generations are stressful enough, but there are also concerns for the financial impact on the middle-aged.

''If they are continuing to support their own children for longer, are they saving enough for retirement? Also, those in middle age will live for longer, so they are likely to need more money when they retire,'' Professor Cobb-Clark said.

Professor Hugo holds concerns about the long trickle-down effect of the ageing baby boomers.

Many baby boomers entering older age are strapped for cash, having worked for many years before the introduction of compulsory superannuation in 1992.

Baby boomers also have health problems, with higher rates of obesity, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, cholesterol problems, mental illness and alcohol risk than their parents.

Yet they are living longer - a man who turned 50 in 2011 can expect to live an extra nine years, compared with a man who turned 50 in 1970. People aged 65 and over will make up one-fifth of the population by 2031.

Professor Hugo said it was a myth that all baby boomers were cashed up for their retirement. While they make up 36 per cent of the workforce now, many find themselves out of work once they hit 55, the victims of redundancies and age discrimination, which reduces their nest egg for retirement. An increasing number are also still paying off their home or renting.

With the government putting more pressure on families to pick up the slack, what happens to people who don't have that support to fall back on?

The number of single-parent households has nearly tripled since 1976, while the number of households with people living by themselves has almost doubled.

Professor Craig said many low and middle-income families risk being squeezed even more.

''[The budget changes] leave fewer safety supports,'' she said. ''If you don't have those resources then you are very pushed.''

 

Decades of care loom for family

Stephanie Cunio and Andrew Scarborough know what it is like to be squeezed between caring for the young and old.

The North Bondi couple have three children aged between four and 11, and they provide much of the care for Ms Cunio's 84-year-old mother who is in an aged-care hostel in Bondi Junction.

Ms Cunio spends time with her mother about three times a week and has changed her working week so she is at home one day a week to care for her - as well as to make it easier to get their school-aged daughters to after-school activities. Ms Cunio and her brother were also caring for their 93-year-old father until he died last December.

Ms Cunio, who has a senior professional job, said she was juggling work, three children and an elderly parent.

''I am very lucky that I have an employer who is very understanding but it is a squeeze,'' said Ms Cunio, 47.

Mr Scarborough said they were now expecting a future where they would be caring for their children for another 20 years.

''I won't be retiring at 55, that's for sure,'' said Mr Scarborough, 46. ''The budget has definitely made it feel like our kids will be living at home until they are 30.''

Mr Scarborough said he hoped his children would go to university but feared it would be beyond their financial reach now that fees would be deregulated.

''What they are doing to higher education is absolutely terrible,'' Mr Scarborough said.

The chief technology officer with an app advertising company said he would love the option of retraining down the track but it would seem like ''a luxury'' if uni fees were going to skyrocket.

''It would be one thing to retrain if it was $30,000 but not if it was going to be $100,000,'' he said.

 

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