A ‘celebrated’ British writer in a recent interview with The Sunday Times recently, commented on Western societies’ ageing populations, arguing there will soon be too many “demented old people, like an invasion of terrible immigrants stinking out the restaurants and cafes and shops”. He described the growth in the number of older people as a silver tsunami that might be so socially destabilising it will provoke “civil war between the old and the young”.
According to him (I’m deliberately with-holding his name to deprive him of his PR goal), there is only one solution: euthanasia booths on street corners, where elderly people will get a “martini and a medal” if they voluntarily ‘retire’ from life.
Not surprisingly, his comments have caused a storm. The British Alzheimer’s Society accused him of being glib and offensive.
This article in The Australian newspaper, eloquently explains that, Western society finds it increasingly difficult to value older generations, instead viewing them as a burden on social services and the environment. The ageing population is most frequently referred to as a problem or ticking time bomb rather than seen as a testament to human ingenuity and leaps forward in medicine and living standards. Older people are now seen, not as sources of wisdom, but as the suckers-up of resources that might be better allocated to younger, healthier people.
The ageing population – ought to be seen as a good thing.
Throughout history, mankind has struggled to extend human life. But it was only in the modern era, with the development of antibiotics, clean water, better nutrition and many other medical and social breakthroughs, that we finally enabled the vast majority of humanity to live beyond their 40th birthday.
In Britain in 1901, life expectancy was 48 years; by the end of the 20th century it was 77.7. In the US, life expectancy in 1901 was 47; 100 years later it was about 75. An Australian woman born in 1901 could expect to live to 54.8 and a man to 47.2. Australian girls and boys born today can expect to reach 81.5 and 75.9 respectively.
Increased life expectancy is the clearest indicator there is that people’s living conditions and circumstances are improving, which is why an ageing population is more of a “problem” in developed countries than in poor countries. In 2008, life expectancy was 82.07 in Japan, 80.87 in France and 80.63 in Sweden but it was 38.44 in Zambia, 37.63 in Angola and, most shockingly, 32.23 in Swaziland.
Yet in Western society, rising life expectancy and more older people are continually treated as harbingers of doom rather than success stories. Governments fret endlessly about the ageing time bomb and claim there won’t be enough money or resources to sustain the hordes of elderly.
Older people are looked on as burdens on the health and social security system; one US writer says this “grey army” will “wreak havoc on Social Security”. Or they are seen as pollutants, unnecessary carbon footprints. Under the headline “Are Grandma and Grandpa bad for the environment?” an ethics writer recently complained that young people will “suffer the environmental consequences of [older people’s behaviour]”.
The recession has provided another platform for elderly bashing. In Western countries, many older people, feeling fit and agile, want to work beyond the traditional retirement age. Yet experts warn there might be intergenerational conflict if old people stay in the jobs market at a time when youngsters are finding it difficult to get work. So, the elderly should be put out to pasture, ejected from productive society and left to potter around their houses with their parrots and their flowers where they belong.
The treatment of the ageing population as a ‘problem’ reveals our inabilty to celebrate humanity’s leaps forward, we instead see our success stories in medicine and living standards as something bad. Unable to come up with solutions for making elderly people’s lives more pleasant through allowing them to work, paying them higher pensions or finding other ways to include them in the social make-up, we label them burdens.