An age divide between the nation’s capital cities and the rest of their states is threatening to drive up demand for health and support services as coastal and inland regional centres rapidly grey.
Across Victoria, there has been an explosion in the number of communities – all regional – where the median age is now 50 years or more as older people retire and young people shift out in search of work or education opportunities.
At the same time, parts of Melbourne are getting younger, widening the demographic divide between the city and its regional hinterland.
New data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that between 2012 and 2020, Victoria’s median age fell marginally to 37.1 years from 37.2.
But it was solely due to an increase in younger people in parts of Melbourne, while regional Victoria’s median age went up to 42.4 years.
In Victoria, there were just eight areas with a median age of 50 or more in 2012 but now there are 38. One entire region — East Gippsland — now has a median age of 51.1 after increasing by 3.3 years since 2012. It is the oldest part of the state.
It includes Orbost, where the median age has jumped by more than seven years since 2012 to 55.9. Part of its rapid ageing is due to its de-population, with the number of residents down by more than 4 per cent over the past eight years.
Other parts of East Gippsland are growing, but those new residents are likely to be older. Lakes Entrance’s population has grown by 8.4 per cent while its median age is now 55. In nearby Paynesville, the number of residents has swelled by 20 per cent while its median age has climbed to 59.2.
Australian National University demographer Liz Allen said capital cities were traditionally home to a younger age profile due to the concentration of job and education opportunities.
She said there was a real risk of “geographic inequality” growing larger between our well-serviced cities and the regions, adding that at the moment education and employment chances did not align with family-orientated policies or affordable housing.
“There will necessarily need to be a re-think about the way education and employment opportunities are geographically distributed across Australia. Health inequalities will be accentuated as the nation’s population ages structurally,” she said.
ANU demographer Liz Allen warns the people who have flocked to the regions might be facing some tough decisions in coming years.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
“Governments of today, and tomorrow, must invest in vital and essential infrastructure to ensure geographic equality. We cannot afford to be short-sighted in the way investments are made in infrastructure.”
Dr Allen is sceptical that the exodus of people out of the major cities during the past 18 months will continue, saying the structural factors that made cities attractive had not diminished.
She warned many of those enjoying a tree or sea change might suffer buyers’ remorse in coming years.
“People who moved to regional areas over the last two years are about to face a rude shock as opportunities for them and potentially their children become constrained and in turn limit future possibilities,” she said.
In Melbourne, the biggest falls in median ages are occurring in developing areas. The median age of Koo Wee Rup in the fast-growing south-east fell by 3.1 years to 35.6 between 2012 and 2020, driven by a huge influx of young families.
In the past year alone, the area attracted an extra 418 people of which 46 were children under the age of 14, with another 195 between 25 and 44. Just one extra person over the age of 45 moved to the area.
By contrast, rapidly greying areas are seeing the reverse. In Lakes Entrance, a net 200 people moved to the area over the past year. Of that group, 155 were at least 45.
In the north-east town of Benalla, net migration added 64 residents over the same period of which 60 were over the age of 45. In the surrounding region, net internal migration added a net 44 people of which 43 were at least 45.
Just a visit to a local football game is needed to know how rapidly the regions are ageing, says Gippsland MP Darren Chester.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Darren Chester has been the federal Nationals MP for the seat of Gippsland since 2008. He said a trip to a local game of football was enough to confirm the bureau’s statistics.
“We didn’t need the ABS to tell us the average age has increased in some towns, just visit a country footy match and see some of the older blokes who are filling in because the young men have left for education or job opportunities,” he said.
Mr Chester said the Gippsland region was undergoing a significant demographic change that would require ongoing government support to secure long-term jobs.
“Reductions in the workforce associated with energy production, and state government cuts to traditional industries like timber harvesting and commercial fishing, have combined with the impacts of the drought, bushfires and agricultural industry changes, to reduce job opportunities in some parts of the region,” he said.
“Gippsland has enormous growth opportunities in the visitor economy, as a destination for active retirees, and value-adding to our world-class food and fibre products. I’m confident that improved connectivity, and the incredible lifestyle opportunities, will see an increase in young families choosing our region in the post-COVID rush to the regions.”
The median age of every state and territory has climbed since 2012. It ranges between the nation’s low of 33.6 in the Northern Territory to a high of 42.3 in Tasmania.
Within almost every part of the country, the proportion of communities where the median age is over 50 is growing. In Queensland, it has climbed to 28 from six.
In 2012, there were no communities in Western Australia with older communities. Now there are six.
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