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Edited by AllanBorowski, ElizabethOzanne and SolEncel . Published by University of New South Wales Press , Sydney , 2007 . Paperback, 397 pages. RRP $59.95. ISBN 9780868408897 .

Reviewed by John McCallum

Victoria University, Victoria

Books are like wines. Some promise immediate enjoyment and forgetting, others are for ageing on the shelves and for coming back to again and again. So what kind of book is the 2007 vintage of this Australian reader on ageing?

This book is the new version of a similar 1997 text by the same editors. Both are in the style of ‘readers’, with a variety of topics from different experts rather than sustained analysis of any one issue. I declare an interest here, having been an editor of a different but similar reader in 1990 and a contributor to an earlier volume from these editors in 1997. As for previous versions of Australian ageing readers, there is a social science emphasis in the selection of themes and content with broader emphasis on policy analysis from a social perspective. Its primary audience will be undergraduate and postgraduate students but, as I will indicate, anyone could bring themselves quickly up to speed with what has been happening with Australian ageing and related policy areas by reading this text.

This edition covers the four terms of the Howard Government from 1996 to 2007, the end of the era. It makes reference to ‘neo-liberal’ policy agendas in various chapters, but the analysis is neither sharp-edged nor sustained. There is an underlying tension between public and private responsibilities for the aged in policy analyses from health to adult education, but this classic neo-liberal debate is not the subject of a common argument or an overall summary. There is also extensive criticism of the two variants of previous Treasurer Peter Costello's Intergenerational Reports, but little ‘self analysis’ of what opponents might call the naïve optimism of the Costello critics. In light of the recent demise of the Howard Government, we await a hard-hitting and sustained review of its policy legacy and this should be on a broader scale than ageing.

The 15 chapters are well constructed, informative and relevant to the present issues in ageing. As expected, the demography of Australian ageing is well covered (chapters 1, and 5 which covers ethnicity), including some world-class work on health projections (chapter 2). The chapter on Indigenous ageing, ‘Ageing without Longevity’ (chapter 3), is outstanding, bringing together new material, data and discussions to provide balanced and comprehensive treatment that should become a standard reference for the field.

There are other unexpected gems, such as the chapter on ‘Ageing in Space: Transport, Access and Urban Form’ (chapter 10), which provides a multidimensional definition of mobility and related facts such as that older Britons decrease their car dependency with age while Australians appear to increase it. They go on to explore the notion of being ‘transport poor’ as a critical risk of ageing. There is also interesting new research on employment brought into the public arena in chapter 6. The staples of the book are the themes of health (chapters 2 and 7) and retirement income (chapter 8), which is also dealt with as a major part of the chapter on law (15).

The coverage of health is focused on health policy, with a strong primary care interest rather than alternative topics such as disease and health promotion. These themes are covered in the health demographics in chapter 2, but not epidemiologically or clinically. The focus on primary care is entirely justified and health is such a major issue for ageing that broader coverage would require another book on it alone.

The chapter on retirement income is also thorough and thoughtfully apolitical. The discussion of the Howard Government's initiative to make it easier for people to switch super funds is described politely as a move “to enhance consumer sovereignty” rather than a neo-liberal attack on industry and union funds to open them up to more competition from private funds, which is what some thought it was. The last chapter (15) on law is more sharply critical of retirement income policy, with a focus on the negative effects of neo-liberalism on the full citizenship participation of older Australians.

The chapter also includes an extended treatment of women's disadvantage under Australian superannuation and proposes some solutions. There is, however, no evaluation of the relative merits of options such as increased private contributions or delayed retirement versus government co-contributions, and ideas such as super-baby bonuses. This issue was noticeable by its absence during the 2007 election campaign, with promises by both parties of $30 billion in personal tax cuts that might have been better spent on government superannuation options for women. This, among many other issues, remains to be resolved in the Australian provisions for an ageing society.

In summary, while we need to wait for full assessment of the 2007 vintage of the Australian ageing reader with the passage of time, it is clearly a good student text with general relevance to a wider audience. It is definitely a book that can be read with interest now and will be good for the next five years at least. Like a good wine, this is a book to be kept on the shelf and referred to on a regular basis.