This report was commissioned during the International Year of Older Persons (1999) by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. It explores the social and economic circumstances of older (those aged 55 and over) overseas-born Australians, and uses English Proficiency Country Groupings to split out and examine the diversity characteristic of the overseas-born.1  This breakdown into English Proficiency Country (EP) Groups yields a rich source of information useful to policy makers and planners in a range of government departments as well as in both for-profit and not-for-profit organisations. The report aims to provide policy relevant information, but does not undertake policy analysis. A summary of the findings follows.

In 1996, there were 1.1 million people aged 55 and over living in Australia who were born overseas, up from 0.87 million in 1986. They comprised some 31% of the total Australian population aged 55 and over. Almost two thirds of these (59%) were from non-English-speaking countries. Both the proportion of older people who are born overseas, and the proportion born in non-English-speaking countries, are set to increase in the 21st century.

Long-established populations of immigrant origins have a high average age, mainly because their locally born children and grandchildren are counted among the Australian-born. Yet, at ages 55 years and above, the overseas-born population is actually somewhat younger than the Australian-born. This reflects the fact that while large numbers of post-war settlers have been reaching retirement, far fewer have so far advanced into the oldest ages. Migration in later life, especially through family reunion, augments numbers, but the dominant process of growth and change in overseas-born groups is the ageing of people who have lived in Australia for decades.

Although diversity is prominent, many groups are small. In 1996 there were only 15 non-English-speaking birthplaces with more than 10,000 persons in Australia aged 55 and over. The largest groups, with 40,000 or more, were from Italy, Greece, Germany and the Netherlands.

Men in English Proficiency Count1y (EP) Groups 3 and 4, and women in EP Group 3 were more likely to be married than other EP Groups or the Australian-born. Four fifths of men aged 55 and over in EP Groups 3 and 4 lived with a spouse, as did the majority of men in the other EP Groups and the Australian-born, although to a lesser extent. The majority of older women also lived with a spouse, but substantial proportions among the Australian-born and those in EP Group 1 lived alone. Women in EP Group 4 were more likely to be living with family members other than a spouse than other groups. They also had larger families than those in the other EP Groups or the Australian-born.

While there is a universal increase in English proficiency over time, the EP Groups remain differentiated or staggered in terms of overall proficiency for any given cohort of arrivals. For example, among recently arrived women (1991-96) who speak a language other than English, the proportion who speak English well or ve1y well varies from 90% in EP Group 1, to 51%, 17% and 6% respectively for EP Groups 2, 3 and 4; among women who arrived before 1981 and who speak a language other than English, the percentages are 95%, 88%, 58% and 31% respectively. Substantial gender differences in English proficiency are also apparent among older migrants. Older women report consistently poorer English than older men, and these differences do not abate over time.

Men and women in EP Groups 1 and 2 had similar, albeit slightly higher, levels of education to those who were Australian-born, while those in EP Groups 3 and 4 had somewhat lower levels of educational attainment. Men were generally better educated than women, and younger people were better educated than older ones. This age related effect suggests that the educational attainments of successive cohorts of older people will continue to improve. The age related effect was, however, least pronounced among women in EP Group 3, suggesting that their circumstances may continue to lag behind those of men and of women in other EP Groups.

Overseas-born men and women in general have slightly lower labour force participation rates than do Australian-born men and women, particularly in the traditional 'pre­ retirement' years from age 55 onward. But men and women in EP Group 1 had either higher or similar levels of labour force participation to those of the Australian-born; it was those from EP Group 2, and in particular from EP Groups 3 and 4, who were characterised by lower rates of labour force participation.

Overseas-born men and women in general had somewhat higher unemployment rates than Australian-born men and women. All overseas-born groups had higher unemployment rates than did the Australian-born from age 55 onward; this finding is noteworthy as until age 55 those from EP Group 1 have lower levels of unemployment than the Australian-born. The levels of unemployment were highest among men from EP Group 4 and women from EP Groups 3 and 4. These differences are sufficient to adversely impact on the capacity for self-provision among immigrants from EP Groups 2, 3 and 4, particularly at older ages.

Men and women in EP Groups 1 and 2 had similar incomes to those of the Australian­ born. People in EP Groups 3 and 4 tended to have lower incomes, and this effect was most marked for those in EP Group 4. Pre-retirement incomes also varied with EP Group, with those in EP Groups 2, 3 and 4 being on lower pre-retirement incomes than those in EP Group 1 or the Australian-born. Women in all groups had lower incomes than did men.

People in EP Group 4 had substantially lower rates of home ownership than other groups, while people in EP Group 3 had the highest rates of home ownership. Of owner/purchasers, people in EP Group 4 were most likely to be still buying their homes at age 60, and people in EP Group 3 were least likely to be doing so. There was also a larger proportion of renters in EP Group 4. People in EP Group 1 had somewhat lower levels of home ownership than those in EP Groups 2 and 3 and the Australian-born.

Taking income and housing together, both EP Groups 3 and 4 were disadvantaged in terms of income, but EP Group 3 had the protection afforded by high levels of home ownership in old age, while people in EP Group 4 suffered the additional disadvantages attendant on low rates of home ownership.

Overall, people from non-English-speaking countries were less likely to have superannuation coverage, and those that were covered had fewer years of benefit contribution. They were likely to retire earlier (at ages 45 to 54), and more likely to have done so involuntarily as a result of retrenchment. Once retired, people from non-English­ speaking countries were more likely to be dependent on government pensions or benefits.

In general, the overseas-born aged 55 and over were not found to be healthier than the Australian-born, despite the expected findings concerning the better health status of the overseas-born.

The overseas-born made less use of residential aged care facilities, and this trend cannot be entirely explained by the younger age structure of older overseas-born people in comparison to the Australian-born. The difference was greater for those in EP Group 4 than it was for those in EP Group 3, and in turn greater for those in EP Group 3 than for those in EP Group 2. Overseas-born clients of both home based and residential aged care services were on average younger than the Australian-born, in keeping with their younger age profile.

Changes in the birthplace composition of the older overseas-born population between 1986 and 1998 brought a greater representation of people from non-English-speaking countries. There was an associated shift in the English language proficiency of the overseas­ born population, denoting higher proportions with fewer English language skills.

  1. English Proficiency Country Groups are defined in Box 1.1, Chapter 1 of this report.