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The 'Silver tsunami'

 

Ever since I crossed 70 I have been apprehensive of the future. With the rising life expectancy I just do not know how long I am going to live. The government from which I retired more than a decade ago provides a pension which till now is handsome. I do not know what happens in the future with the continuing double-digit inflation. For the present things are comfortable – the government supplies the basic medicines that I need and I can afford to buy the vitamins, micronutrients and other diet supplements. But their prices are also rising almost every month. That is, however, a minor worry. What gives me nightmares is what would happen if I develop some disabling ailment or if I happen to go into a coma. Geriatric care here being what it is, I may become an unbearable burden on my wife or may have to lie around uncared and neglected oblivious of my surroundings.

My lot, however, is much better than those of many others who have either far scarcer resources or none at all to take care of them. In the lower middle classes, particularly those who retire either from the unorganised sector or were self-employed have a pretty miserable advanced age with hardly any safety net to fall into. Perhaps, worse is the condition of those in the rural areas when they become unable to work in the fields as farmers or farm-labourers. They have nothing to fall back on. There have been reports of young men and women leaving their old parents at home when they go looking for work in urban centres. The parents are left behind with very little for sustenance. I remember during one of the Kalahandi (a district in Orissa) famines years ago things were so bad that all the younger people left the villages leaving behind all the elderly and infirm. As nothing was available they were left to fend for themselves until they met their inevitable end. The story was so well written that it became a real tearjerker.

Things are likely to get worse for the elderly in the country. Statistics show that in post-independence India their population has been increasing along with the general growth. Though the country is stated to have a large majority of youngsters, the so called “demographic dividend”, yet the rising population of over-60 is increasingly becoming a cause of concern. Over the last few decades their numbers have been steadily increasing and today it is estimated to be more than 10% of the total population. The small percentage, however, hides behind it a very large absolute number. A sharp decline in mortality and a steadily declining fertility rate have contributed to the process of population ageing.

Consequently, a larger number of elderly are going out of the workforce every year. Better healthcare and nutritional levels, particularly among the middle classes, have enhanced the life expectancy. Hence, surviving through the 70s is really no big deal. Their presence, however, does cause a strain on the household budget as well as the national economy. Carrying a large army of unproductive population will strain any economy. Even in the developed world very scary projections have been made. Rich countries are up against a rapidly ageing workforce. Nearly one in three American workers will be over 50 by 2012 when America is considered a young country compared to Japan and Germany. China is also ageing rapidly, mostly because of its one-child policy. Hence, many observers find the phenomenon to be a serious threat and they have given it a name; they have called it the threat of “silver tsunami”.

The problem has yet to be appreciated and seen in its proper perspective. In the West they were preparing to deal with it when they were overtaken by the recession. When the economy happened to be sliding no one could give a thought to the problem of the “silvers”. As the Economist (February 6th 2010) says, “Companies are still stuck with an antiquated model of dealing with ageing which assumes that people should get pay rises and promotion on the basis of age and then disappear when they reach retirement.” Corporations would sometime try and find relief from the burden by encouraging workers to take early retirement. But, such a model, however, could not work for long because of shortage of young people with necessary skills and experience, particularly in the educational, scientific and engineering establishments, making it difficult to shed older workers.

Nevertheless, to quote the same Economist again, “many industrial companies are re-jigging processes to accommodate older workers”. BMW decided to staff one of its assembly-lines with over-50s and then raised their admittedly low productivity by making their life in the workplace more congenial. Others, like Bosch, are trying to capture the knowledge, experience and skills of the elderly to close the skill-gap among younger workers.

The corporations in the capitalist world are always much smarter in tackling an oncoming problem when they see one. Some of them are what are called “gerentophile”. For example, Asda, a subsidiary of Wal-Mart, is Britain’s biggest employer of over-50s. Another Danish supermarket has experimented with shops employing only people who are 45 or above. Elsewhere some companies keep a pool of retired workers who are called upon to work on individual projects. Then there is the concept of semi-retired people who double-up as part-timers.

In India, however, things seem to be different. There is just no evidence that India Inc has become conscious of the brewing “Silver tsunami”. Perhaps, the need has not been felt yet as the Indian technical pool is still, by and large, young. The Central and state governments in India, however, make the best use of the best of the technically qualified men either in their own respective fields or in several others where they could make valuable contributions. Over 80 years old Dr. MS Swaminathan, the famous agricultural scientist, E Sridharan, Metro Rail Chairman are undoubtedly the best examples. A vast majority of ordinary humans are, however, out of this catchment and are left to their own devices. With an economy on the up and up some do find a source of income. Others, however, have to fall back on their familial resources or their own savings, failing which, with the liquidation of the joint-family system, they lead a miserable aged life.

There is every indication that with the growth in population, which is likely to continue for a few more decades, the problem will become only more acute in India.    Whatever has so far been done is too little and suffers from several inhibiting factors. The National Old Age Pension Scheme is hardly ever properly implemented and often the beneficiary remains deprived mostly because of corruption and the bureaucratic processes involved. In January last it was decided to evaluate the Scheme in order to make it more effective. Perhaps, the government could also examine the need for its expansion to cover more helpless and economically weak elderly.

Unlike in the rich world geriatric care in India is virtually non-existent. It seems, the Central and state governments have disowned their responsibility towards the “silvers”. There is no reason why a beginning should not be made now. There is need for its institutionalisation at least in urban areas. And, in villages if there are “anganwadis” for children “anganwadis” cannot be established for “silvers” living out their “second childhood” in miserable destitution.

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