Crisis emerging in Australian retirement system: HILDA

The University of Melbourne says the long-term sustainability of Australia's retirement system is under threat from a growing wealth divide across generations.

According to the university's latest Housing, Income, and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, a third of young Australian home owners aged between 18 and 39 aren't making any progress on their mortgages year-on-year, and are instead increasing their home debt.

Combined with data showing stalled income growth and a rising number of young people being priced out of the housing market, a key vehicle for retirement savings, survey authors have raised serious concerns over whether younger generations will have enough superannuation to fund their retirement.

"At this stage, the message from the HILDA numbers is that the generations coming up are not going to have quite the same living standards in retirement that many of the baby boomer generation will have," survey leader and University of Melbourne economist Professor Roger Wilkins said.

"You have to wonder whether these young homeowners who aren't paying down their mortgages, will have paid off their loans by the time they retire.

"They may be thinking, perhaps unconsciously, that they are going to use their superannuation to pay off their homes and then simply go on the aged pension. So it really raises questions about the sustainability of the retirement income system."

Wilkins added that this year's survey is the first time he has gone back through the HILDA data to track the progress of homeowners in repaying their debts - and was shocked by the results.

"I had to keep double checking it because I thought it must be wrong," he said.

"You tend to think of people buying their house and then paying off their loans over time, but for many that just isn't happening."

To address this generational wealth divide, Wilkins is calling for new policies to be considered, including reducing tax concessions on superannuation and negative gearing, and including the family home in the assets test for the aged pension.

"These aren't politically easy policy solutions because they will hurt the large baby boomer generation that is now retiring, but I think we do need a more equal treatment of income in the tax system," he said.

While young Australians were the key focus, the big divide between men and women in retirement is also causing alarm, with men having almost double the superannuation of women at retirement - $454,221 for men, $230,907 for women.

This, according to the survey, is putting single women at a significant disadvantage, leading Wilkins to question whether divorced women, who traditionally will have had more child-car duties and less opportunity to build remunerative careers, should have some ongoing claim to their ex-partner's superannuation.

Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia chief executive Martin Fahy notes however that survey shows that the compulsory superannuation system is delivering substantial benefits at the time of retirement.

For those who retired in the four years up until 2015, 69.2% of males and 71.4% of females had superannuation upon reaching retirement.

"Well over half of retirees with superannuation establish a regular income stream in retirement," Fahy said.

Read more: RetirementHILDAUniversity of MelbourneWealth divideHousingMartin FahyRoger WilkinsASFA
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