Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Opinion | The grey generation is actually a silver lining for Indian society

Knowledge and wisdom that elders have acquired with their experience should be ploughed back into the community

Global economic growth has produced many benefits, including reduction of poverty and invention of new products and services, to make life easier. It has also produced undesirable side effects that have begun to ring alarm bells, such as the amount of carbon waste spewed into the atmosphere and the masses of plastic waste polluting the oceans.

Another side effect of economic growth is the ageing of populations. Economic growth creates higher incomes, better healthcare and more food, all of which enable humans to live longer. Longevity is a good measure of the benefits of economic progress. Life expectancy has increased in all countries. Longevity is one cause for the overall ageing of populations. The other is the reduction of birth rates along with economic and social development. The reduction of infant mortality reduces pressure on families to have more children. The education of women and their access to better paying jobs dissuades them from having children too early. People living longer and having fewer babies has changed the shape of populations. This has economic consequences because more elderly persons have to be provided for with resources from fewer young people.

Globally, the proportion of persons more than 60 years old has increased from 8% in 1950 to 12.7% now and will rise to 21.3% in 2050. Japan has aged much faster: from 7.7% persons over 60 in 1950, to 33.4% now. This is expected to reach 42.4% by 2050. Even India, which has a way to go to provide good education and healthcare to its children, and also much to do to provide good employment to its burgeoning population of youth to obtain the demographic dividend for its economy, is experiencing the inevitable ageing of its population with economic growth.

Birth rates are already declining in India. In several states in the south and the north, birth rates have fallen below 2.1 per woman, the “replacement rate" required to maintain population size. They are declining in other states too. In 1950, children (aged 0-14 years) were 37.5% of India’s population and the elderly (over 60 years) were 8.9%. The proportions now are 9.4% elders over 60 and 27.8% children below 14. By 2050, elders (360 million persons, 19.1% of the population) will exceed children (18.9%). How will the needs of increasing numbers of elderly persons in India be provided for when the demands of its youthful population are not met, and when there is insufficient capacity, financial and institutional, to provide for them? The solution is to see the elderly as a blessing, not a burden.

Elderly persons are the fastest growing and least used resource available to humanity. NGOs training youth to be entrepreneurs are on the lookout for mentors. Schools need part-time teachers and counsellors to provide remedial education to students who are falling behind. Employers complain that skills training programmes are not providing the soft skills and tacit knowledge that trainees need. The knowledge and wisdom that elders have acquired with their longer experience should be ploughed back into the community, rather than being wasted by disconnecting the elderly from the economy. Loneliness and feelings of being unwanted are major causes of mental and physical problems among older persons. Rather than putting them aside, physically (and mentally), to be cared for separately, they should be integrated into their communities where they can contribute to improving social conditions. Not only will the elderly feel wanted, the community will also benefit from their services. NGOs working for the care of children and youth would do well to collaborate with NGOs working for the care of the elderly. Their collaborations could assist all generations.

Modern, curative medicine is driven to add more years to a sick person’s life by keeping the body alive longer. When the body ages, as it inevitably must, health problems will increase. The body slows down. Mobility is reduced. The elderly aspire to add more life to their years, not merely more years to their lives. Medical systems are not designed to provide the special assistance the elderly need. In the absence of good alternative care systems, they have to unnecessarily go to hospitals, further burdening crowded facilities, also paying more than they need to. Japan and the UK are changing strategies from the provision of market-based systems for healthcare for the elderly to community-based systems, whereby the elderly can be assisted at home by trained caregivers. This approach is better as well as more affordable.

Environmental and social systems have been broken apart by relentless economic growth. Nature has become a source of commodities for the economy. In society too, human beings are valued if they contribute to economic growth. Hence the emphasis on youth and the drive to include more women in the workforce. What is not useful for growth any more is discarded—the carbon waste in the atmosphere, the plastics in the ocean, the piles of garbage surrounding cities. Even the elderly, as they are no longer efficient resources for organized production systems, are discarded. Humanely, they may be given rest in old persons’ homes, disconnected from the community.

The idea of a “circular" economy in which nothing is discarded as waste is a solution for the sustainability of the earth. In the circular economy, waste is valuable. Social systems must become inclusive too. The elderly must not be set aside after they have fulfilled their economic purpose. The generations must be reintegrated within their communities. There is wisdom and value in many forms that the elderly can provide to society.

“What sort of world are we leaving for our grandchildren?" is the rhetorical question often asked to remind everyone that we must redirect the trajectory of growth. “What sort of world are you leaving for yourselves?" is the question youth must be asked. They are much more likely to live long as their grandparents than their own grandparents could have expected to. The social norms and institutional arrangements youth shape today will be the world they will have to live in.


Arun Maira is chairman, HelpAge International.

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