Working people will continue to grow, but we also need to plan for burgeoning elderly
Argentina Matavel Piccin
There is increasing realisation of the growing numbers of older people in India. Some even claim that India will soon be a country of old people. Is there reason for alarm or rather a sign of success? On the face of it, the numbers do certainly stack up.
Currently 8.4% of India’s population is above the age of 60 years. In numbers, this translates into approximately 102 million people. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) projections, by 2061 the elderly population (of and above 60 years) in India will increase to 425 million. In other words, every fourth person in India will be 60 years old or more. Or to reiterate, in 42 years, the number of 60+ people will be four times its current strength.
However, let us not assume we are staring into a bleak reality of old men and women outliving the young. India’s youth population is not on the decline. Projections show that India’s youth population will continue to grow. Starting 2001 and till 2030, India will have seen a huge increase in its working age population: 390 million will be added to the existing working age population, resulting in a billion plus strong workforce in India by mid 2040s.
The good news is, mortality is on the decline, life expectancy is on the rise. In other words, Indians are living longer, working longer, and will continue to do so. Projections by UNFPA also show that women will live longer than men, an important factor that needs to be kept in mind while formulating policies and designing programmes for elderly people. Life expectancy for women will increase, from 69.4 in 2011 to 79.7 in 2061 as opposed to for men, from 66.0 in 2011 to 76.1 in 2061.
India’s fertility rate, or the number of children who would be born per woman, has decreased rapidly from 3.6 in 1994 to 2.2 in 2015-16. We are that much closer to reaching the replacement fertility rate of 2.1. This means, among other things, more and more women today have access to choices and opportunities made possible by access to family planning services. It also means women today are claiming the right to their bodies and asserting their right to choose whether, when and the number of children they want to have. They can choose to stay in school longer, to enter the labour market, participate in political life, to contribute more to their communities.
So then, why aren’t we celebrating? Because even as we take these large strides towards a demographic dividend, our social structures – also going through a transformation – are not keeping pace.
With migration on the rise and the young leaving their homes to move to more productive and economically lucrative states, families comprising of the elderly are being left behind to fend for themselves. A UNFPA study also shows, poverty is higher among the elderly. This trend will only continue and perpetuate. Furthermore, large family units have broken down into nuclear families, leaving the elderly alone.
The breaking down of gender stereotypes has also made way for the young daughters-in-law, traditionally caregivers of the elderly, to transition to working women. It’s all good news, except that the old are falling through the cracks. Unlike countries like Japan that provides a comprehensive social healthcare package to the elderly, India is not quite ready to deal with this demographic transition that is taking place. The World Assemblies on Ageing (Vienna, 1982 & Madrid 2002) signalled the need for governments to implement measures to address this. In India too, several consultations have been held, and southern states like Kerala are leading the way by setting aside 10% of annual village funds to take care of the elderly.
The need of the hour is context specific policy planning for the elderly in India. Ageing will happen at a different pace in different states. For example, there is an almost ten-year difference in the male life expectancy in Kerala and Bihar; 77.8 vs 69. In 2061, the female life expectancy will be 85.5 and 79.1 years in Kerala and Bihar, respectively. Per capita income, which could be taken as an indicator for economic well-being of people including the elderly, is Rs 22,890 in Bihar while it is more than Rs 1 lakh in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
While policies and plans can’t be a one size fits all, there is need for a minimum national package of services to ensure dignity for the elderly. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that most of the labour force in India is not covered by retirement pension plans and the elderly are generally dependent on children or on property for an alternate source of income.
Innovative and sustainable models of social support, care and social protection need to be planned and institutionalised now so that the country is ready with viable models and solutions to support the large number of elderly people in the not too distant future. Social bridges could be established to ensure that the knowledge sitting with the old can be transferred to the young, and that the young can help the elderly bridge the technological gap such as use of smartphones and social media. Without it, India’s elderly population remains highly vulnerable to loneliness, ill health and neglect. India cannot let them fade from its collective consciousness.
The writer is India Country Representative, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Today is World Population Day