Celebrating older people for a change
October 1st is the UN International Day for Older People. A couple of weeks after the Pope (aged 83) was welcomed by the Queen (aged 84) and the Duke of Edinburgh (aged 89) there might seem to be no need in Britain to argue the case for incorporating older people into broader society. But there is. His holiness and the royals are exceptions which prove the rule. More typical are headlines about the sidelining of older people and too often their poverty. Indeed, age-poverty is usually accepted as inevitable. In the words of the late Peter Townsend, it is one of the last bastions of tolerated discrimination.
Economists have done their bit to explain why older people are not valued – and even justify it. In most economic analysis, older people are treated as consumers but not as producers. Even worse, because of their low incomes their consumption is small, a minor part of national consumption. In English, the very word retired signifies withdrawn (unlike Jubilado in Spanish which means joyful).
Economists have rarely attempted to quantify how much the older age group contributes to society – except recently by calculations of how much they might contribute if the age of compulsory retirement was lifted.
In fact, older people play a key role in contributing to the households in which they live, thus reducing family poverty and hunger. According to HelpAge International, as many as 80% of older people in developing countries are in the labour force. They may be doing informal, insecure and poorly paid work but, nevertheless, make a significant contribution to household income.
In contrast to orthodox economics, a Human Development Approach emphasises the importance of “putting people at the centre” of all decisions and policy. Human development sees the future challenge for development as enabling all people to live lives that are long, healthy and fulfilled. Issues of economic efficiency and economic growth are not ignored but are treated as means to the ends of human development, not as goals in themselves.
A major UN meeting on global ageing in Madrid in 2002 gave examples of what could be done to strengthen older people’s capabilities. This included making cities more age-friendly by keeping transport costs low, providing separate queues for older people and providing clear information about health and social services. The provision of flexible working conditions, decent work, and employment opportunities for all who can and want to work, regardless of age was also cited as key.
The major need is for a change in mind-set – from views that “older persons constitute a millstone around society’s neck”, to recognition that ageing is “an opportunity for development”.
To support that mind-set change we need policies that encourage active participation of older people in all forms of social and economic life, and promote their contributions. We need to encourage and enable older people to continue working, earning an income when they are able to do so.
Such policies need to permeate the whole of society. With the surge of consumerism in many countries, there are attempts to deliberately foster a culture in which individuals are encouraged to accumulate personal savings and pensions during their working years to serve as a resource base in old age. This no doubt is important – but it is still far too narrow. Through every age, from school children to working adults to caring grandparents, there is a need to build societies of solidarity and caring, which end age marginalization in all its forms.
Today, there is a real risk that older and poorer people will bear the brunt of global cutbacks. However, the voting power of older persons globally may already be more significant than many realize. A study of 15 European countries in the 1990s found that the average turnout of persons over 60 was 93%. The proportion of older voters will increase in the UK alone from 27% at present to 33% in 2020. This is one political constituency that it will become increasingly difficult to ignore or marginalise.
Nonetheless, in the current economic climate, calls for more active policies towards older people are likely to be met with demands for financial realism. It is precisely in this situation that those committed to older people’s rights must be alert to actions based on prejudice and misguided ways of framing the issues. On the 1st October every year older people in 50 countries join together under the banner of the Age Demands Action campaign to claim their right to be treated as equal citizens in society. In countries as diverse as Kenya, Fiji, Kyrgyzstan, and Jamaica, people will be calling on the world to wake up and recognise the huge value older people represent to society and support them better. We cannot afford to ignore their voices.
Longfellow put it well. “Age is opportunity, no less than youth itself, though in another dress.”
Sir Richard Jolly is a Research Associate at the Institute of Development Studies
For more information on the Age Demands Action campaign go to www.helpage.org
(Picture: Getty Images)
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