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There are two aspects of volunteering which we tend to accept. Firstly in economic terms because there is no money value attached, since the word itself implies the word ‘free’, and secondly the outcomes of the efforts of volunteers often can’t be valued and therefore are often just accepted.
This problem particularly affects older people. Because we are not seen to be producing an income we are not regarded as valued members of the community and are therefore regarded as bludgers on the economy by some. I suspect that many who feel this way are not aware of having this attitude, much as people who are racist are often not aware of it. As an older person I am aware that it exists, particularly when out shopping. So many younger people expect me to move out of their way, not necessarily because they feel that as an older person, and therefore unlikely to be contributing to the economy, but I don’t count because they see no reason to value me. They forget that one day they will be old themselves and therefore subject to this behaviour!
This attitude extends to most volunteers of any age group. Unless their work is specifically brought to our attention, such as through wearing a special uniform as in some hospitals, we may not be aware that it is being done out of the goodness of people’s hearts.
What we forget is that a monetary value could be put on what is done in many cases but because it is often just accepted, and is nothing new, people don’t think of it. A group I belong to has many volunteers but doesn’t normally put a monetary value on what we do. As it has now applied to be a registered charity I suggested we would attract more donations if we did include it in our brochure and would then be able to expand our work. For a reason like this I suspect many of us would be willing to count up our hours. For other voluntary work, such as babysitting, which is a frequent unpaid occupation for many older people, I suspect many would feel that this is too precious to be given a monitory value and to do so would devalue it.
The other side of the coin is that it means that the rest of the citizens never have a figure in terms of, in many cases, billions of dollars contributed to the economy by these people, including those they push out of the way in shopping centres.
If we added up in monetary terms the value of all the voluntary work done even in just one country I suspect we would change the attitude of its citizens to each other in a very positive way. We shouldn’t need to push those who are more frail out of the way and people who do this would feel much better about themselves if they didn’t.

Two recent events are giving me negative thoughts about our Universities in particular. The first is the closure of our manufacturing industries in quick succession and the apparent lack of an alternative solution to avoid an increase in the unemployment rate. The negative outcome of these events not only causes deep distress for the workers involved, particularly as many have worked for decades for these employers, but is also harmful to the health of the country. The dismissed workers have not only lost their jobs but also status in the community and the country as a whole is faced with declining taxation income and increasing benefit requests. Many people saw this coming, particularly with the higher wages of our workers, but apparently it wasn’t at a high enough level for action to be taken early. There is one school of thought which points out that jobs frequently disappear from society and new ones take their place as society modernises. Whilst this is true this has a pace attached to it which is probably unlikely to be matched by the current pace of job loss.
Already some industries are calling out for an increase in qualified migrants as it seems we are short of staff in some fields. Many of us are left questioning why we can’t train people for the jobs in which there are vacancies rather than depriving other countries, often poorer countries, of the qualified staff they need themselves.
These problems require a think-tank approach which I would have thought was a field in which our Universities would have excelled but apparently not. I recently read an article about the way the US tackled the problem of a diminishing manufacturing work force 20 years ago. Apparently they worked out that manufacturing was not the place for their workers in the future but rather problem solvers were the way to go. Surely our Universities, either alone or combined could find a viable solution for us at this point in time. Wasn’t it possible for someone in a relevant position here to realise that manufacturing was not going to be a viable path in future and planned for an alternative?
The second input I had into the way Universities and other research institutions currently work and their role in society was the fact that I am having difficulty getting backing for my own research. The only cost envisaged at this stage is the cost of getting it approved. Apparently the paper work for this is now huge and expensive, even before research gets off the ground. I can’t help feeling there is an Alice-in-Wonderland situation arising here. In the past I would like to think projects got off the ground based on merit now it seems to be based on how many people can be employed in fulfilling and examining the paperwork for projects. Such expensive bureaucracy results in actual, real life research ending up in unopened computer files while the country misses out on research which would have moved us forward and improved life for many. Is that what happened to research into an alternative to manufacturing?
Maybe Universities should be ranked, and awarded funding, based on the amount of human good they are contributing to, particularly when applied to research. I’m not sure what current benchmark Universities are applying to themselves but this may be one reason why very few of the Australian ones have a good world ranking.

This is a subject that occupies my mind quite a bit as my Ph D continues to drag on. Unfortunately I stumbled across a list of University rankings and found that the one I am studying at does not make the world top 500 on any of the main lists and is even ranked at the bottom of the Australian ones. This week the University has added two more people to their staff who are in no way academics. It used to be a requirement that to be appointed to a University at anything above tutor level you had to have a Ph D. A few years ago this University had less than half of its staff with this qualification, again well down even on an Australian list. Current policy seems intent on lowering even this figure.

Does this matter? I think it does. Our politicians run the country but they largely rely on others to provide the necessary background knowledge. We can easily dismiss the situation by saying that often people with higher qualifications don’t seem very bright and/or the subject of their thesis didn’t really contribute much to human knowledge ( I remember one thesis successfully submitted at one of the top 50 ranked Universities was based on whether two elderly ladies who lived together in Wales over a century ago were lesbians or not! This wasn’t world shattering knowledge!). The point is that research at that depth in any subject produces a really well-trained mind which the world needs although if the subject of the research adds value to world knowledge this is even better. If politicians were obliged to undergo the sort of mental activity involved in higher learning then political debate would be minus a lot of the crap which currently permeates it.

A second problem is that this type of, and level of, learning can’t be a one-off experience. I cringe when I hear politicians professing to support education, and recognise its benefits, as long as they are referring to other people! Many of them sprouting the need for universal access to education, which no-one would disagree with, haven’t undertaken any formal education themselves for decades. Do they think that what they learned in that distant past will last forever? Given the enormous rate of change in the world knowledge bank we need to accept that learning has to be a lifelong experience. Listening to people whose own learning is well out of date spruiking about the need for education for other people makes me wince. We need to realise that the world is constantly changing and our knowledge of it regularly changes and unless we make at least an attempt to keep pace with it we look silly when we open our mouths and sprout rubbish.

In many, if not all, countries of the world ordinary people strive to improve their own education if possible. They are even more adamant that where possible they will fight for their children to have access to learning. In developed countries more and more people strive to go to University not just to get degrees but an increasing number are moving on to higher degrees. If a country is to benefit from this then the quality of the education involved needs to be acceptable. If universities in other countries are also lowering their standards it will be less of a problem in a highly competitive world. If not Australia is in big trouble.

Just before Christmas I received copies of the examiners’ reports on my thesis. I am not able to know the names of the examiners until the whole degree process is over but I assume that all three were chosen for their expertise in ageing.

I find it difficult to accept that three people with what should be parallel backgrounds can have such different views. One gave positive ticks in all the boxes, one gave all negative ticks and the third is all over the place. This was particularly intriguing in terms of whether each examiner regarded my research as new knowledge or not. One said it was, the other two said it was not although the one who was all over the place seemed to think that if I did some more study it would be! Considering that I am supporting my arguments using the fairly recently accepted brain plasticity research, which to my knowledge no-one else in the field of later stage of life research has applied in this area, I find it difficult to accept that it is not new work. In addition, if it is not new work and other people are already following this line I would assume I would be aware of it through the very many conferences I attend, both in Australia and overseas.

I know that there is some unease about increasing the number of undergraduates exponentially as we seem to be doing, without lowering standards. This concern then extends to higher degrees, particularly with doctorates. At my first conference for researcher students in ageing five years ago I was concerned that so many students, many of them in the field of physiotherapy, were researching very trivial issues. In their case the incentive was that they could then call themselves ‘Doctor’ when setting up their physiotherapy clinics and people would assume that they were medical doctors.

This mass production of higher education needs to be monitored to make sure that ‘easy’ topics don’t replace genuine research in much-needed areas. If we look at the world today we do not seem to be producing research in the right fields nor  are we applying it as we should. Any newspaper any day is likely to portray at least parts of  the world in a state of chaos, either nature produced or man-made, and we seem to have no solution for either. The collapse of the banking sector led some people to realise that our so-called democracies are actually controlled by dictatorship banks. Queensland, which has been suffering for years from drought is now inundated with water which has to be left to flow distructively away. Will this be replaced by another drought which again we don’t know the cause of, nor can we prevent it.

Meanwhile I am left to grapple with an academic problem nearer home. If one examiner objects to part of my thesis and the other two don’t is it a problem? How do I address such differing responses? The one who failed me makes comments that have already been refuted in the text, suggesting that he read it in a hurry. The one who ticked all the boxes is very keen for me to publish several parts of my research which I intend to do but not initially in the academic press which is what I think he has in mind. Ageing, and the effects of it, are an everyday problem for an increasing number of older people. This is where most research should be taking us, to practical use in the community. A few years ago a researcher in Sydney did research on solar panels but could get no financial support here. He found a very different story in China which seems to be well ahead of other economies in its use of natural energy and welcomed him with open arms.

Research should be largely based on the natural, and man-made, problems around us, recognised as such and assessed as such. Then we will have a better world, including for the homeless and starving. Then our scholarship and research will have its rightful place in society.

I have always felt that having my research sitting in a thesis on a dusty shelf was a bit of a waste and I have always been determined to publish it as a populist book. I have now even abandoned the thought of publishing articles in appropriate journals they usually have limited circulation and the audience is almost 100% younger people who wouldn’t appreciate the relevance of it.

Currently my thesis is with three examiners, hopefully with intimate knowledge of older people, and not obtained from what other younger researchers have written. There are too many holes in this type of research, all theory and no practice.

Meanwhile I am having a fruitful time putting my research into a book which is aimed at older people themselves, and also pre-aging people. It is so different writing in a more personal style, in which there is no word limit and no longer does each word have to be formal and necessary. What makes it easier is that I am not writing about ‘them’ but about ‘us’ as an older person myself. By continuing my career until the age of 73 I know what is possible because I am doing it myself.

I am continuing to read the latest books about brain plasticity and how increasingly important this is to older people. The old ‘use it or lose it’ saying has now been amended to ‘use it as much as possible’. With an anticipated 1.13 million Australians predicted to have Alzheimer’s disease by 2050 a scary picture is presented. One author pointed out that we have got ourselves into an unacceptable predicament and we need to work towards extending brain health to that of life expectancy. I still feel that research into Alzheimer’s disease focusses on finding a cure, not prevention. This is cynically tied in with the fact that the organisations doing the research are all medical people who can’t look outside the square, nor does their careers support a non-medical prevention approach.

We are in the midst of an election in Australia. It really saddens me that neither party has announced a policy on our Aboriginal people, in spite of world condemnation of our treatment of them. Presumably the politicians don’t feel that their votes are worth chasing.

Since the voice of older people is only heard through the young people employed by the major senior organisations, the situation as regards this section of the population is much easier, although the policies are often irrelevant as far as genuine older people are concerned.

I hope I can find an international publisher for my book as I think its relevance stretches beyond Australia.