The shift in our homes

February 13, 2022

Our society has traditionally leaned on the institution of family to take care of the elderly. That seems to be changing now

The shift in our homes

A human is born frail; gains strength with age; grows older still, only to go back to being fragile once again. Such is the cycle of life. The fact is undisputed, universal and absolute. Yet, too many people in today’s world appear to believe that they are an exception to this natural progression. Human beings have been programmed with a will to survive – no matter what. Perhaps, that’s why we hate to be reminded of our imminent end.

Mankind has been blessed with considerable ingenuity, but how does it prioritise the use of this precious resource? Before it can come up with a cure for cancer, we see it coming up with ways to appear younger. The annual estimated expenditure on anti-ageing products currently amounts to $274 billion. It is rising by the year. With that kind of money, we could eradicate extreme poverty and hunger and give people access to safe water.

In a global society apparently averse to old age, an increasingly uncaring attitude towards older people is manifesting. History tells us that this wasn’t always so. In many cultures being older meant being more powerful. Thus, the position of a village elder or the family matriarch came one with much experience and age. Even at the nation state level, one saw leaders with silver in their hair. Age was thus seen as something good, something desirable. In other ways the older one grows the more irrelevant or absent he or she becomes in various social roles. Many old people today complain of their role in society being shallow and one-dimensional. This is, of course, not to say that we don’t accept older people in positions of power. We do, and we have many – however, they do not enjoy this position of power because of their age but always for some other attributes.

It is then ironic, perhaps, that we live in an ageing world. The average age of humanity is going up, and quite rapidly so, especially in North America, Europe and some parts of Asia. A report from the United Nations shows that the median age of the world population has risen from 23 in 1950 to 30 years in 2015. By 2050, the average age of the world is projected to be 36. In more developed countries, these trends are steeper. Even in Pakistan – a country with a demographic youth bulge – it is estimated that the number of people over 60 will double by 2050, according to the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs. This means that one in seven of our citizens, or 12.9 percent of our population, will be over the age of 60 by 2050. It is paramount then that the needs of these ageing populations be understood.

The Pakistani society has traditionally leaned on the institution of family to take care of the needs of the elderly. However, this institution seems to be going under a structural shift – from a joint family system to a nuclear one. This is largely due to rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and ‘modernisation’ of society, which in turn have had a profound impact on the value system of the Pakistani people, and are responsible for a shift in the society from collectivist thinking to a highly individualised one. With the new value set, we also seem to be changing our societal practices around gender roles and how we manage the household economics.

Many voices can be heard expressing concern over a loss of familial bonds. Many warn that the dissolution of the joint family will result in its most vulnerable members, the elderly, being left to fend for themselves.

However, this is not necessarily a cause for despair. It is merely an indication that the society is changing. Social progress happens almost exclusively in such conditions. We must study these changes, identify the trends and build strong alternative systems to replace the old ones. A change is upon us; we must adapt accordingly.

The writer, a published anthropologist, teaches at the International Islamic University, Islamabad

The shift in our homes