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What shall we do with the old?

BY: Elizabeth Ohene
Prof Samuel Kobina Annim — Government Statistician
Prof Samuel Kobina Annim — Government Statistician

We have an old age problem. It is not obvious and is not really in your face. It is not exactly like the youth bulge that everyone talks about, worries about and which you cannot ignore.

It starts with the little problem of agreeing on what age we deem old in this country. We have difficulties defining the youth, but it is even more difficult agreeing on who is old.

The United Nations defines adolescents to include persons who are 10-19 and youth as those between 15-24.

If you have ever dealt with political party organisations in this country, you would recognise that such a definition of youth would create real problems. I have known a youth organiser who is nearer 50 than 30.

Then there is the other problem of where we place the youth and where the old fit in the general scheme of things.

The future belongs to the youth, which we believe will be better, the past belongs to the old and people seem to believe it was better, the present is the battleground.

We all remember that when we were 12-years-old, everyone who was 18 and above was old and anyone above the age of 30 was very old and those who were 50 years and above, were irredeemably ancient.

As for those who were 65 years and above, they had fallen off the spectrum and were not worth thinking about.

Then you discover that your own definition of old begins to change as you get near the defining figures you had set.

In your teens, it appears you couldn’t grow old fast enough; once you reach the early 20s, you are no longer in a hurry to be old.

When you reach 30, you find that you are referring to those in their 30s as young and even the 40-year olds don’t look as old as you had thought, but the 60 plus are of course still old and so it continues until you get into the 50s and then 60 appears “not that old” really.

If you beat the odds and cross the average age at which most people die, which in our country is about 64, then you have, by your own earlier definition, fallen off the spectrum. Ours is a young country and the median age is 21.5 in a population of 31 million.

Unsurprisingly, there is such emphasis on the youth bulge that we tend to forget about the growing old age bulge.

Census

We might not be at the stage where we can talk about a greying population, but something interesting is certainly happening. According to the latest census, there are some 552,000 people aged 70 and above in this country.

In a population of 31 million plus people, that is probably not a significant figure but I must say I was surprised by the figure.

In much the same way that everybody looks and feels old when you are young, a time comes when everyone looks and feels young once you reach a certain age.

You realise you have a problem when you read obituary notices and start referring to 60 something and 50 something year olds as “quite young”, and when you hesitate to refer to someone aged 75 as old.

That happens when you are that age yourself or near it or above it. It happens when you refer to 40 and 50 year olds as young.

Whilst you may be struggling with deciding whether somebody at 60 is old or not, it is a good idea not to lose sight of the fact that for the majority of your compatriots, there is no hesitation at all in classifying everybody who has reached 60 as old. That is after all, the age at which people are expected to retire.

It is very difficult when you are in your 20s or 30s and even 40s to see someone in his 60s or 70s or, dare I say, 80s as anything but old, where old means slow and infirm at best.

When the economy is booming and the general atmosphere is pleasant, it is possible to see these old people as “sweet, old, harmless people” who tell the same story over and over again.

If they are still at work, they would likely be seen as the repository of institutional memory who remind everyone why things are done a certain way.

When the economy is struggling and jobs are hard to come by, everybody near 60 or over is seen as an impediment in the way of the youth.

If only these old people would disappear from the workforce, the argument seems to be, there would be enough jobs for the youth.

Indeed, someone recently put it in a manner that challenges the popular theories being canvassed towards dealing with youth unemployment.

Instead of telling and encouraging the youth to go into job creation and establish their own businesses, the old who are in jobs should leave their positions and go and do what the young people are being asked to do, and start their own businesses, so their positions would be taken up by the young people.

In other words, get out of the way, you have had enough, leave the space for the young people. If it were that easy to be an entrepreneur, you would all have created your own jobs.

I am not quite sure how many jobs in the public sector would be available if the old people vacated their positions.
Probably, that will depend on what we shall regard as the cut-off figure at which the old will have to go to create vacancies to be filled by the youth.

Even if the figure were to be 50 years and not the obligatory 60 at which people are expected to retire, I doubt it would solve the problem.

The numbers in the 18 to 30-year band are far, far greater than the numbers of the old people who should be thrown out.

Life expectancy

The problem we face is that we are living longer generally, back in 1971, the life expectancy was 49.63 years and now it is 64.35 years; so, what shall we do with the old people when they are no longer occupying the spaces that the youth should properly occupy?

In other words, back in the 1970s, the majority of people would die before the age of obligatory retirement.

The pension companies would be smiling. Today, there is an increase in the number of people who live beyond 72, which is the age they expect you to die.

Far from wanting people to leave the workforce early to make room for the young people, the pension companies would much rather have people work longer and retire nearer to the age they die.

People are not only living beyond 60, they appear to be staying healthier and confounding all the expectations we have of the elderly.

I wouldn’t suggest that we suddenly start thinking of our country as a place where we have to worry about the old more than the youth, but the truth is that their numbers are increasing, they might not be as loud as the youth, but they lay claim to much of the present space.