Australia: The rising cost of living and global economic uncertainty means older Australians such as Brett are delaying retirement

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Brett Clements' modest super balance has been fluctuating daily because of global economic uncertainty. (ABC News: Phil Hemingway) © Provided by ABC Business Brett Clements' modest super balance has been fluctuating daily because of global economic uncertainty. (ABC News: Phil Hemingway)

When Brett Clements got his first job at 15, he dreamed that, if he worked hard, he would be able to enjoy the fruits of his labour and retire at 40, but it wasn't to be.

A modest superannuation balance and the rising cost of living mean the 60-year-old Perth-based cleaner expects to be working for at least another 10 years.

"I have about $150,000 in superannuation, and I'll end up with $10,000 left out of my superannuation after the house is paid for, which isn't a lot to live on after 45 years of working," he told ABC's 7.30.

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"[I'm] definitely behind the eight ball … because the wages aren't good. So, therefore, your [amount] is not that great going into super."

Another decade of labour will be painfully hard for Mr Clements, who still suffers physically and financially from breaking his back when he owned his own cleaning business 20 years ago.

"We tried to keep that business going. In the end, we just had to fold it," he said.

"I've suffered with this ever since."

Mr Clements' 75-year-old wife works alongside him as a cleaner and can't afford to retire either.

"She'll tell you that I've become more and more depressed," he said.

"We buy mainly home-branded stuff but … an $80 shop is now $130."

What's making Mr Clements even more uneasy is that his superannuation balance is fluctuating daily because of the global economic uncertainty.

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"I have a balanced superannuation, so I'm not a big risk-taker," Mr Clements said.

"COVID hit, the war in Ukraine has hit. Now, suddenly, everything's volatile."

According to consultancy firm SuperRatings, only three superannuation funds have reported that they made money for their members with balanced investments during the past financial year .

SuperRatings' top 10 balanced super options over 12 months:


Option name

1-year returns (%)


Hostplus - Balanced



Qantas Super Gateway — Growth



Christian Super — MyEthicalSuper



Legalsuper — MySuper Balanced



Australian Retirement Trust — Super Savings - Balanced



Energy Super — Balanced



Aust Catholic Super and Ret — Balanced



CareSuper — Balanced



HESTA — Balanced Growth



TelstraSuper Corp Plus — Balanced


However, the Association of Superannuation Funds Australia's deputy chief executive, Glenn McCrea, is urging older Australians not to panic about share market volatility.

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"The reality is [the previous] financial year, we saw returns of 20 per cent. This [past] year, it has fallen slightly, on average about 3 per cent," he said.

"Call your fund. Understand where your fund invests. Understand your balance and how your balance has changed over time.

"I do encourage people to look at returns over 10 years, rather than follow what happens day to day."

The downturn in superannuation amounts comes as the government and opposition clash over the level of detail that superannuation funds provide to their members about political donations, marketing and sponsorship expenses.

Super balances at retirement

Estimates vary on how much Australians need to retire.

Mr McCrea said that, on the association's calculations, a single person would need $545,000 and a couple $640,000 in retirement to live comfortably.

"[It] basically means you can afford to go to a dentist, you can catch up with friends and have that cup of coffee, you can fix the washing machine or car," he said.

"We estimate that, by 2050, 50 per cent of Australians will get to that dignity in retirement."

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Despite wanting to be self-sufficient, Mr Clements knows his superannuation won't be enough to sustain his retirement.

"I'll have to go, cap in hand, to the government and try [to] draw on a pension," he said.

"Pride gets in the way sometimes."

Young Australians also worried

It's not just those hoping to retire soon who are feeling nervous about their superannuation and their future.

Hairdresser Michaela Marshall-Lawrence, 27, was forced to withdraw $5,000 from her superannuation at the start of the pandemic to keep her salon afloat.

She'd just opened the business, and faced the brunt of lockdowns amid a drop in bookings.

"I wasn't eligible for any government support, in any way, shape or form," she said.

"I had already exhausted 95 per cent of my savings on purchasing the salon.

"[The $5,000 super withdrawal] was enough that it paid for another month's worth of rent, and I could pay my staff and I could afford to live."

Under the former Coalition government's scheme, up to $20,000 could be withdrawn from a person's super during the pandemic if they were experiencing hardship.

However, withdrawing the money early meant missing out on potentially tens of thousands of dollars of compound earnings across future years, something that concerns Ms Marshall-Lawrence.

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"I'm now paying myself 22 per cent super," she said.

"I know so many people, they're like, 'Oh, it's just super. I can't access it for another 50-60 years anyway, so what's the point?'

"And it's like, 'Well, there is a big point, you know'."

Data exclusively provided to ABC's 7.30 by the Association of Superannuation Funds Australia shows that, out of the 3 million people who accessed their super early, 1 million were left with less than $1,000 in their super account, while 163,000 people were left with no super at all.

Mr McCrea said those who took out money early were mostly single parents, women and those on low incomes, and 44 per cent of applicants were aged under 35.

"There's no doubt younger people were the main people to take money out through early release," he said.

"What we do know is a younger person who took the full $20,000 out, will be $43,000 worse off in retirement, so that's for a 30-year-old," he said.

Council on the Ageing chief executive Ian Yates said those who had withdrawn early would find it tougher to fund their own retirement.

"The impact of that withdrawal is that there'll be higher pension costs into the future years," he said.

Shadow Minister for Financial Services Stuart Robert maintains the former Coalition government policy was a necessary one at a time of crisis.

"This was a one-in-100-year pandemic. This is a not normal state of affairs," he said.

"Australians are pretty canny and Australians are able to make decisions themselves.

"The requirement, and the responsibility, was with individual Australians because, remember, it's their money."

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Fund spending in the spotlight

How superannuation funds spend their members' money is currently under scrutiny before Federal Parliament.

Mr Robert said the Labor Government was trying to wind back the Coalition's policy to force funds to itemise disclosure of political donations, marketing, and sponsorship expenses.

"We believe they [super funds] should be transparent. All members should be able to see how every dollar of their money has been spent," he said.

"The transparency and integrity of superannuation of members' money is being watered down so the Labor government can try and hide what super funds are spending their money on when it comes to political donations, when it comes to football sponsorships."

Mr Robert has written to crossbenchers urging them to support itemised disclosure and disallow Labor's proposal for less detail, which has been drawn up as a draft regulation.

The government said there would still be a requirement for super funds to disclose payments to industrial bodies, including unions and employer associations, but it would be an aggregate figure and not itemised.

Watch this story on 7.30 tonight on ABC TV and ABC iview.

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