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The twilight years

July 15, 2013

LAST week, I wrote about the difficulties faced by unknown numbers of senior citizens in the country because of a tightening economic climate that makes them work past retirement or because their children have relocated to climes more conducive to prosperity.

Several people wrote in response, saying that this was a tragedy. Many pointed out that it was ironic that the West, for all the godlessness for which people in Pakistan tend to criticise it, had found a workable solution; meanwhile we, who pride ourselves on being part of a society respectful of age, are increasingly leaving our seniors to fend for themselves as best as they can.

And, in urban Pakistan, within a limited social strata, lifestyles are changing along the pattern seen in the West a couple of generations ago, with families moving towards the nuclear model and individualism slowly taking root.

Other societal shifts, such as migration within or beyond borders — so that families break up as people move away — also contribute to the need for the state to intervene and set up safety nets for the aged.

But several Western countries have for many years been facing a different sort of age-related problem, that of an aging population compounded by falling birth rates. Due to a range of factors, a growing number of people in North America and Europe are deciding not to have any children, or not have enough of them.

This is attributed to several different factors depending on the academic prism through which an analyst views them.

It has been pointed out, for instance, that the development of a welfare state model such as that which exists in several Scandinavian countries means that people no longer have to look to their children to look after them in old age, since the state will do it; therefore, some of the impetus behind starting a family has been undermined.

Similarly, it can be argued that professional ambitions or economic realities may lead many to decide against parenthood. Raising a family is expensive, and being a working parent is an unenviable task. (Although there is also a trend evident, particularly in affluent sections of Americans, of professional women choosing to give up their careers to become stay-at-home mothers.)

Whatever the reasons, the end result is the same: states realising in dismay that as they have more and more people crossing over into retirement, they have falling rates of young people entering the workforce, resulting amongst other things in a shrinking number of workers subsidising the needs of a growing number of retirees. The latter, thanks to advanced medicine and medical care, have every expectation of living far beyond 65 years.

In many ways, this has led to positive results. Countries have responded by providing incentives for starting a family, including, variously, subsidised childcare, added maternity benefits, equal paternity leave and so on.

As a result of lobbying by parents’ groups, a few workplaces are trying to make the work day more flexible and normalise home offices so that childcare and work routines are made more compatible, to mutual benefit.

These are all praiseworthy initiatives, even though the cynic might point out that they’re motivated by base economic concerns. While they may go some way towards addressing the falling birth rates’ issue, they’re also valuable for the cause of gender equality and equal opportunities.

The aged of different countries face unique challenges. South Korea, for example, is now a vibrant, youth-oriented society leaning heavily towards capitalism and individualism. But welfare spending constitutes a relatively new and small part of government spending; national health insurance was introduced in 1977 and welfare as a system was set up mainly during the 1990s.

What this means, then, is that while people can today look towards their retirement with equanimity, the oldest sections of the population — who might have retired before the welfare system was instituted or worked in fields/companies that had not yet set up benefits such as provident funds — do not.

The generation in its 80s now is, ironically, the one that pulled the country up by its bootstraps after the war and envisioned the welfare system; but it depended on its children for support in its own old age.

This generation, now, is amongst the poorest sections of the population, given the changing social system

in which increasingly

children do not fend for aged parents as they traditionally did — even though the East, like the subcontinent, venerates age.

How bad can things be? Unwilling to bring shame to their families by committing suicide, many old people in South Korea try to starve themselves to death.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, China passed the Elderly Rights Law — widely criticised by tens of thousands of web users — ordering adults to visit their elderly parents or face fines or jail. While the implementation of the law may be difficult (it does not set out a visiting schedule, for example), it does reveal the scale of the loneliness of many.

In many ways, Pakistan can be seen as having much more pressing problems than loneliness or children who don’t fulfil their filial duties. Yet, perhaps not. The prosperity of a state depends, as a one-point root, on its citizens’ belief in it and loyalty to it. It depends on citizens having a stake in the system.

To the young, this country offers a future of slim economic and security pickings, alienating many and leading to brain drain. To the old, it offers neither comfort nor care. Who, then, can be said to have a stake in the system? The obvious answer is: those that have no choice.

The writer is a member of staff.