The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 30, 2000

Crisis of age
By S.C. Dhall

THE growing number of elderly around the world are straining the abilities of governments to care for them, creating a looming crisis that will threaten economic growth and development.

The threat is fuelled by two trends. The breakdown of the extended family under the pressures of urbanisation and the financial straits of government pension systems struggling to provide aid to rapidly growing groups of retirees.

The world today faces a looming old age crisis. Rising life expectancy and declining fertility — welcome indications that development is working — also mean that the proportion old people in the general population is growing very fast, particularly in many developing countries.

In India, too, the number of people above 60 is on the rise due to number of factors. Not all the aged depend on society for their care but a majority of them do. The socioeconomic changes, the increase in the literacy of the women folk and their inclination towards jobs have led to break-up of families. This has led to a situation when the aged have nobody to look after them at times of need.

  Taking note of factors concerning the aged in the country, the government and the voluntary organisations have enlarged the scope of their activities. Under the Central scheme, the Government provides assistance to the extent of 90 per cent to voluntary organisation for the programmes related to the aged. For the tribal areas the assistance to the extent of 95 per cent is available.

The report said that in 1990, about 500 million people, or 9 per cent of the world’s total, were over 60 years old and by the turn of century it is likely to touch 700 million and by 2030, that number will nearly triple to 1.4 billion.

Developing countries are aging more than twice as last as industrialised nations. The impending old age crisis will probably hit parts of Latin America and the former socialist nations of eastern Europe especially hard, because these countries have relatively large populations of elderly and their pension systems are nearing collapse.

In Hungary, for example, more than 25 per cent of the population is retired, the average retirement age is 54, and the payroll tax is 33 per cent. When a worker retires, they stop paying taxes and start drawing benefits, hitting the system with a double whammy that makes it hard for the government to provide education, infrastructure and other investments that could spur or economic growth.

Industrialised countries are not immune. In Australia, Germany, Greece, Italy and Finland about one-third of the public budget already goes for pensions. In Sweden, Britain and the USA, about one-fourth of public spending supports the aged.

Traditional societies in sub-Saharan Africa could also face trouble. Even though in many areas traditional support networks such as extended families remain strong. Govern-ment pension funds throughout the region are underfunded and generally poorly managed.

According to the 1981 census the population in India of aged persons over 60 years was 44.5 million. By 1991 their population increased to 54.8 million as per the registrar general’s projections, and by the turn of century it is likely to touch 70 million. The proportion of the elderly people in 1981 was 6.2 per cent and it is currently estimated at 7 per cent of the total population in the country.

Meanwhile, the every citizen has a right to roti, kapra, and makaan and it is incumbent upon the government to devise ways and means to provide these to him. A comprehensive national policy should be formulated to find a satisfactory and lasting solution to present-day maladies. The worst sufferers are law abiding middle class and lower middle class people who either have limited or no means at all.

Over the next half a century, the share of the population in Japan, 65 years and older, is expected to increase from 15 per cent to 32 per cent as its population falls from 127 million now to a projected 105 million by 2050.

In Italy, where the population is predicted to fall from 57 million to 41 million over the same period, the share of those over 65 years in the population is expected to rise from 18 per cent to 35 per cent, according to a study conducted by the UN’s population division.

In Europe today, there are approximately five persons in the working age group for each person in the retirement age group (65 + years). By 2050, this ratio will decline by more than half.