I HAD another birthday last month, 29. Hardly a cause for celebration. Peering close to the mirror confirms all my suspicions: there’s a kind of papery slackness in my skin and tiny lines around my eyes and on my forehead. And there’s a certain set to my mouth these days that reminds me of my mother. No doubt about it — I’m growing old.
I’m fighting it, of course: face cream on windy days, exercise to counter the effects of gravity on breasts and bum, diets to flatten my tummy each time it slips out of control, And yes, that’s the strongest feeling— that it’s out of control.
Yesterday I was a flower child, flouncing barefoot down the High Street with bells hanging from my ears. Today what bloom there was is definitely fading. And tomorrow? Tomorrow, I suppose, will transform me into that bent old lady I can see from my window: grey hair straggling from beneath a tartan scarf, face scoured by the wind, shuffling along with her eyes on the pavement.
Sometimes I walk behind her, cursing her slowness, sidestepping her like an obstacle — a small, shambling, black-clad inconvenience to my impatient progress, And soon — much sooner than I care to contemplate — she will be me.
That it’s happening to me is bad enough. But the United Nations informs me that I am just a speck of gunpowder in a silent population explosion quietly preparing itself for the beginning of the 21st century. The number of over-sixties, they say, is the fastest growing section of world population. By 2025 one person in seven will be over 60 compared with just one in every 12 in 1950.
And I’ll be one of them — just one of a billion oldies jostling for a seat on the bus, pushed to the back of a queue at the market, sitting patiently in the clinic waiting room — if there still are buses, markets and clinics in 2025, that is.
And the cause of the impending grannie boom? The cause is development. The improved health care and nutrition that allows so many more babies to survive their first vulnerable years is keeping those babies alive to a ripe old age. What began as a trickle, as existing parents and grandparents began tottering on into their seventies and eighties, is set to become a flood as we — the babies of the baby boom — grow old.
But all over the world the baby boom generations are choosing to have fewer babies themselves. Global birth rate is predicted to halve between 1950 and 2025, while average life expectancy will rise from 47 to 70 years. Development turns the population pyramid upside down. For centuries the very young have outnumbered the old. In 1950 there were nearly two under-fives for every person over 60. But by 2025 grandparents will outnumber babies by two to one.
Suddenly I understand the drive to procreate — not as a spiritual or biological yearning — but as a simple desire for self-preservation. My grandmother had four children: so did my mother. They have four people caring what becomes of them and four people paying taxes to contribute to their pensions. At 29, I am still childless. Chances are that my partner will die perhaps ten years before I do. Who will care about and support me when I’m old?
And I’m not the only one to worry. Governments in the rich world turn grey themselves when they contemplate the demographics of the future. One in six Frenchwomen has no children. In Austria there is already one pensioner for every two workers paying tax. And it’s a scenario set to repeat itself in the Third World, where more and more old people will become dependent on relatively fewer young workers and countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, Mexico and Nigeria will see their grey generation increase up to 15 times by 2025.
It seems an appalling prospect. But there’s something wrong somewhere. This so-called greying of nations should be seen as a triumph — a symbol that development has at last begun to lift the dark curtain of hunger and disease, a sign that population growth is slowing down. And development must be a good thing, surely? Long life, healthy life: I thought that was what we were all fighting for.
The problem is dependence. If things continue as they are, my pension will be only a fraction of my working wage and my standard of living will drop dramatically when I retire.
As a general rule, only a few countries, usually socialist, provide pensions at the International Labour Office (ILO) recommended rate of between 65 and 85 per cent of working wage. Ironically, pensions are among the lowest in one of the richest countries: many retired workers in the US receive only 33 per cent of the average wage. With no free health services, growing old in the States is a frightening prospect indeed.
But at least I can retire and I’ll get a pension, however paltry. If I had been born into the Third World my future would be much less secure. Although nearly every country, rich and poor, now has some kind of social security system providing pensions, in the Third World it’s often only government administrators and the military who are eligible — usually because they have demanded pension rights and can make sure they get them.
The ILO predicts that only 25 per cent of retired men and six per cent of women will be receiving a pension by the year 2000. The rest will have to work as long as they are able and then turn to their children and other relatives for help. Dependent on the state, dependent on the family. It is a miserable prospect — for the up-and-coming old as well as for the younger generations who will have to shoulder their growing greying burden. And, apart from wholesale euthanasia, there doesn’t seem to be a solution.
But there is another way of looking at it. The equation: development means lower mortality, means lower fertility, means more old people means more dependent people means poverty for all — is not entirely logical. It entails the assumption that old people are ‘naturally’ dependent on the rest of the population as soon as they open their eyes on their 60th birthdays. If that assumption is correct then ageing is indeed something for everyone to fear.
Looking at the reasons why old people become dependent made me realise that there was nothing natural about that state at all. Because, in prolonging life we have prolonged not disabling old age, but vigorous middle-age.
To my astonishment (and relief) I discovered that at least 75 per cent of old people in the developed world are virtually free of disabling disease and that less than five per cent suffer the brain atrophy that leads to senility. Experts on geriatrics point out that ageing is not a disease. If you are decrepit when you grow old it’s because you’ve led an unhealthy life. While this means that the statistics are likely to be much less cheerful in the poor world, where many old people are the survivors of a lifetime of hardship and a host of life-sapping diseases, it does mean that I — and you too — have every chance of becoming spry sexagenarians — nearly as healthy as we ever were and just as capable of learning new skills and holding down a job.
And that means that we will probably be perfectly capable of looking after ourselves for the majority of our old age — if we are allowed to do so. But unfortunately, unless there are some radical changes in current attitudes towards the old, you and I will be forced into dependence whether we like it or not As one old lady wrote recently to a Sunday newspaper:
We must prepare to do battle to maintain our independence. I am haunted by the fear that unless I can dispell the assumption that I am a senior citizen, the following events may reasonably occur:
1. I shall have a gang of young thugs sent to my home to paint my kitchen instead of going to prison
We pensioners are in a terrifying position. We are recipients. Hands off please. I am in charge of my life’.
That old woman is angry — as are several other old people quoted in this issue of New Internationalist. And it is easy to see why. They are the same energetic, talented people as they always were. But suddenly society informs them they have grown old and slams shut its door in their faces.
We don’t wear out with use. Given the right opportunities, we can improve with age. At 90, Picasso declared ‘We don’t get older, we get riper’. Ripe, not rotten.
The old — like any other disadvantaged minority — are not disabled by oldness. Prejudice and discrimination are the main reasons for their disability.
In Britain it was decided, in the interests of economy, that an adult education class must have enrolled at least 12 students to qualify for local government subsidy. It was also decided that a student of pensionable age would only count as half a person. So a class of 23 pensioners would fail to get off the ground!
Job-sharing, flexible retirement and continuing education are only dreams in most countries. But it is possible to conceive of a system where the boundaries between education and work are blurred, where people can learn a new career three or four times during their lives and become what Alex Comfort calls ‘lifelong pilots’ — instead of ‘work-oriented kamikazes, one-way projectiles, designed to explode at the end of their trajectory’. There are few signs of this dream becoming a reality however. Some old people are angry. But, considering that they are one-third of the electorate in some countries, they are keeping remarkably quiet
Because of their lack of power, the old have to appeal to society’s pity rather than demand what is theirs as of right. And, so unpleasant are the stereotyped images of ageing, that few old people want to identify themselves as members of an ‘old’ age group.
But as Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, points out: ‘Ageing is something we all share’. It cuts across all race and class boundaries. It is the one thing my grandmother in Wales has in common with Mika Kerago in Nairobi (page 23), MmaShoro in Botswana (page 14), Alex Comfort in California (page 12) — and me. We’re all growing old.
I began researching for this issue of New Internationalist reluctantly. I didn’t want to find out about old people. I didn’t want to be brought face to face with my future. But what I discovered has changed my mind. I found that my hair will definitely thin and grey and my eyes will undoubtedly grow short-sighted. But I also discovered that these are among the surprisingly few inevitable consequences of growing old.
Dependence and depression will only overtake me if I let them, if I lie down and allow less healthy, less wise people to define me, denigrate me and discard me. And, do you know, I glanced in the mirror again just now — and I think that the lines around my mouth don’t look so bad after all. In fact. I think they rather suit me.
This special report appeared in the healthy and wise - the rise of the over-sixties issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.