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October 14, 2020

Options for the ‘old’

Opinion

October 14, 2020

Ageing is a gradual and steady chronological progression that commences at birth and ceases at death. Becoming ‘old’, on the other hand, is an abrupt transition that comes after crossing a specific chronological age.

This transition to becoming old or a senior citizen comes laden with publicly mandated formal policy enactments that specify entitlements and limitations. Being old also comes with informal social and cultural descriptions of age-appropriate behavioral norms. Many older adults will steer their lives comfortably within the boundaries of these policies and norms but others will transgress them. These transgressors raise questions about the definitions of being old and about the policies and norms of ageing.

Chronological age is a prominent marker of life stages and public policy builds institutional infrastructure around the age number. The stages of life can be divided into various phases – childhood, teenage years, adulthood, and old age. Legislation, public policy decisions, laws and regulations structurally reinforce these stage-wise divisions. Age-specific regulations regulate life by stipulating at what age individuals can start going to school, voting in elections, driving cars, receiving pensions, etc.

The age-specific benefits that come with being a senior citizen can include discounts on public transport, government pensions, publically provided health care, and so on. These entitlements vary across countries and different countries fix different ages for different entitlements. For example, in Pakistan the retirement age is 60 years but in Canada the retirement age is 65 years. However, for some things, such as participation in the Senior Games in Canada, the age eligibility starts from 55 years.

Along with the benefits and entitlements of old age, being classified as a senior citizen also imposes limitations. Prominent among these is retirement. Retirement at attaining a certain age equates with a clear sense that an individual’s productivity, regardless of skills or expertise, can nonetheless be dispensed with. Though it is difficult to argue that certain physical and cognitive functions do not decline with age, the decline is not invoked instantly in its entirety by crossing some specific chronological marker of age.

The concept of retirement by a certain age is a policy that is found in almost all countries of the world. However, chronological age-dictated retirement is not a timeless historical fact but rather a phenomenon that beings being seen from the late 19th century. The use of chronological age as the main marker of being old presents some very tangible advantages to policymakers.

The biggest advantage for policymakers is the simplicity and ease in designing and implementing policy. It is this simplicity of usage that perhaps makes it appealing for governments and institutions to choose age as the main marker of being old. The problem with using chronological age as the only marker of old age is that not everyone ages uniformly.

Those who do not age as per general chronological and social norms argue that ‘age is just a number’. Underwriting the notion of old age being defined by more than just a number includes approaches to ageing that focus on functionality. Functional age can be measured by an individual’s ability to accomplish certain physical tasks. Though functionality provides a more accurate assessment of ability, it comes with much more complexity and much higher costs in assessment and application.

Privileging chronological ageing means using the attainment of a certain age number as the defining characteristic in deciding who is old. This approach involves abruptly forcing transitions, such as retirement, on older adults as soon as they attain this certain age, with utter disregard for the functional capacity of the individual at that particular point-in-time. Though many retirees may be fully healthy and highly capable, retirement results in shutting the doors on them being able to easily contribute in management and decision-making.

It is important to also clarify that allowing retirees to continue to work does not mean that they necessarily continue in their pre-retirement positions. What is being advocated here is to explore options for retirees to contribute positively to society based on their expertise and experience. This contribution also does not have to be only in the form of paid employment, it could be in an honorary or volunteer position.

Specific to the Pakistani context, senior citizens can be a major resource in helping educate and develop the youth. According to a UNDP 2018 report, Pakistan has a significant demographic ‘youth-bulge’, with more than 64 percent of the population being below 30 years of age. Here, therefore, is a potential area for policymakers to put in place opportunities for inter-generational activities with educated retirees providing education, knowledge, mentoring and guidance to the impoverished and poorly educated youth of the country.

Public policy institutionalizes a chronological age-driven definition of old age which, along with the myriad of social and cultural norms, helps define what being old is all about. It is important to look at those who choose to defy what these formal and informal structures dictate with regards to age-driven retirement and being old.

These exceptions question the limitations of a chronological age-driven definition of old age and demonstrate how it is possible to live active and healthy lives after crossing the age of retirement. This nature of active aging enriches individual lives and can meaningfully contribute to community and national development.

The writer heads a university-based

policy centre in Islamabad.