Talking bout’ her generation

Stephanie Thomson showcased the unique power of actuarial skills to reveal a picture of intergenerational inequity, at a United Nations Forum last month.

In 2015, her final year of a double degree in Applied Finance and Actuarial Studies at Macquarie University, Stephanie Thomson made it her mission to navigate a maze of data and measure the collective experiences of different generations.

As part of her Research Fellowship with Global Voices, Stephanie collaborated with UK charity, The Intergenerational Foundation, to develop an ‘Intergenerational Holistic Equity (IHE) Index’ for Australia, based on 19 indicators.

“The purpose of this was to try and amalgamate all of this data into a simple, easy-to-read index; one graph, that would give us a barometer of inequality between generations,” said Stephanie.

Getting the numbers right

Ensuring the data aligned and worked together was a challenge. It had to be annual data and go back to the year 2000, to feed into the Index accurately.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics collects data in different ways to other institutions, of course, which meant “hours and hours and weeks and weeks of data manipulation”.

Researching alone with no university tutor to mark her data analysis added pressure to the project.

“It’s very easy to make a minor error so that was kind of riding over me the whole time.

I was thinking ‘I can’t stuff this up because it’s only me…this is going to be published, this is going to follow me for the rest of my life’,” she said.

Stephanie was one of four young Australians who prepared research reports on different aspects of the United Nations Economic and Social Council High-Level Political Forum (ECOSOC) agenda for 2015.

“We had timelines to do our research through Global Voices and I’d finally finished the data [manipulation] and hadn’t written a single word. Everyone else had done their draft and I thought ‘I’m not going to get this done’,” she said.

Once the results were in, however, the writing came naturally for Stephanie, who finished her 20-page report, confident in the results.

“It’s just that bulk of data at the beginning that was the challenge,” she said.

Stephanie met former Prime Ministers, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, when they addressed the UN assembly and UNICEF respectively at the Forum.
Stephanie met former Prime Ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd when they addressed the UN assembly and UNICEF respectively at the Forum.

There were some data sets that Stephanie had to abandon – including crime data and extra wellbeing indicators – because distinguishing between population demographic force and actual trends proved too difficult.

“I’m a single student, I wasn’t confident doing super tricky software-crazy data analysis, so at the end of the day I went back to basics and used indicators I could be confident in,” she said. 


Where to from here?

The key finding from the IHE Index is a 13% decline in intergenerational fairness in the last 15 years – just shy of the UK Index’s 33% decline – but still, a figure which should be a wake-up call for Australian policy makers, in Stephanie’s opinion.

“I was surprised by how bad the economic factors are getting,” she said.

The Global Voices UN ECOSOC Australian Youth Delegation outside UN Headquarters in New York, July 2015.
The Global Voices UN ECOSOC Australian Youth Delegation outside UN Headquarters in New York, July 2015.

The Index shows a 34% worsening in economic outcomes with “the most sporadic and disquieting indicator” factor being government debt per employed person.

“The government’s regular spending increases to age care assistance are unsustainable in the current context of demographic change,” the report states.

Stephanie is calling for an institutional framework or appointed ombudsmen to represent the rights of future generations as well as increased investment in cohort data analysis and longitudinal studies in this area.

“Tough policy decisions are needed to ensure that Australia remains prosperous and its tax and transfer system sustainable. Budget repair, climate change, superannuation reform, and modifications to age care assistance must be prioritised by the current government,” the report states.

The UK’s Intergenerational Foundation plans to adapt Stephanie’s Index to align with their set of indicators before republishing it in the UK.

With her degree finishing at the end of the year and a graduate position lined up at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Stephanie now plans to enjoy some rest time while promoting her research.

Our internet browsers are brimming with government data and environmental reports, as well as the dubious happiness study and housing ‘crisis’ headline; a maze of clues to the overall experiences of different generations in Australia’s short history.

With rigorous mathematical skills and technical training, actuaries like Stephanie continue to make sense of a wealth of available population data to help policy-makers understand the risks, challenges and opportunities for different generations.

Read Stephanie Thomsons opinion piece: Why future generations depend on us rethinking the old age pension and the full research report Intergenerational Holistic Equity Index: Mapping Intergenerational Inequality In Australia

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