(Part 5 of a 6–part series)
OK, sorry grandma and grandpa. We like you and your cute purple hairdos and fluffy slippers and everything, but we think you are, well… useless. Sorry! But where are we going to put you all, as you keep getting older and unhealthier? I don’t know how to tell you, dear grandparents, but you are just another bunch of mouths to feed; a huge drain on the economy.
Not that we don’t appreciate your funny inability to use computers properly and the endearing way you keep forgetting our names. So entertaining! But who is going to pay for all the mashed pumpkin and bingo cards?
OK. Let me come clean here. I am tired of hearing all this moaning and groaning about the ageing population. As people get older and they live longer, they get wiser – don’t they? Even their mistakes are a potential source of learning – let alone their vast archives of experience and memory. Our elders are a treasure. Maybe if we stop treating old people like burdens, if they feel more valued, a lot of them would begin to feel healthier, and even act healthier. I am willing to bet all the purple hair-dye in the world on that. Want to destroy someone’s health, brain function, digestive function and cardiovascular health in a jiffy? Tell them they are a drain on the economy and treat them like they are in your way. This babble about the ‘ageing population problem’ is self-fulfilling prophecy par excellence.
Is the solution to cull old people perhaps? Should we call the Paint-ball fanatic we mentioned earlier and ask for a quote?
I know plenty of people who love their work, who never want to retire until they croak. If societies invest in the human right for work to be enjoyable and safe, then an increase in the retirement age is natural. Later retirement might then be tolerable at worst, a boon to health and wellbeing at best. Want to eliminate the ‘ageing population problem’ in two generations? Tell your children to do what they love when they grow up and leave school, not what you think will give them ‘status’, a McMansion and a couple of HumVees in the shed. Loving the work you do should be a self-evident human right.
Is longevity extending while peak health remains static? If not, then of course retirement must come later, especially for those who still enjoy some measure of work. But what about those elders who prefer to – or for reasons beyond their control – retire with grace when the time comes? Beyond paid work, is there any other benefit that our elders bring to society?
Tragically, the Western world seems to need a little reminder about the value of its seniors. Elders constitute a huge pool of loving hands to support and guide young families – we need our grandparents in order to thrive.
Somewhere along the line, evolution decided to give women an early menopause, that is, while they are still young and fit. This peculiar trait is rare in the animal kingdom; humans share it with rhesus monkeys, chimpanzees, elephants and short-finned pilot whales. The ‘Grandmother Hypothesis’, in a nutshell, goes something like this: menopause evolved in humans because it promotes the survival of grandchildren.
Since we climbed down from the trees, for over 95% of human history, each child could count on the love and support of about 4 adults. Our success as a species pivots on parents who can rely on grandparents for backup. Lets face it. The in-laws might be a bit irritating – but we can’t do without them. Maybe we should be a bit less cavalier about the so-called ‘ageing population problem’.
In my work as a psychologist, author and parent educator, one lesson I have learned is that children need multiple attachment figures. The nuclear family is inherently dysfunctional and a risk zone for high stress, premature divorce and post-natal depression. Bring on the ageing population, I say! It is the best news imaginable for the sake of children’s wellbeing and health. As we reach new and unchartered age-brackets, humanity is reaching new depths of wisdom and experience unknown in history. This is likely to advance social evolution to new heights.
Old people pump millions of hours into the ‘invisible economy’, by volunteering, child-minding or mentoring. Our elders can be an invaluable community asset if they get the support they need to contribute within their limits.
This is what the Australia Institute said, in a recent report:
“Far from being net receivers of help and support, older people are, in fact, net providers, at least up to the age of 75 years. They provide childcare, financial, practical and emotional assistance to family members including helping people outside the household with the tasks of daily living. Such unpaid caring and voluntary work adds up to a significant proportion of GDP, around seven per cent on some measures (Ranzijn et al. 2002; De Vaus et al. 2003).
Grandparenting has become an important social role in an age when people tend to have more living parents than children. Not only does it benefit grandparents themselves who find that grandparenthood is an important aspect of their lives, but it also appears to benefit grandchildren substantially.” CLICK!
Modern fears about an ageing population are based on two rather bizarre assumptions:
Bizarre assumption number one: “Even though people are living longer, they are getting senile and frail at the same age as before. It’s just an extended vulnerability. Medicine has prolonged life without doing anything to prolong health”.
Bizarre assumption number two: “As soon as people reach retirement age all they care about is stopping work even if they live to 95. That’s all old people want to do. Play golf at your expense, for 30 years.”
People with white hair do not subtract from our communities. We could well do with more of them. By the way, I feel obligated to disclose this conflict of interests: I am finding more snowflakes on my head and chin these days. That’s going to be me, complaining that someone stole my bathrobe, not long from now. Am I biased? You decide!
OK, so: we don’t have an ‘overpopulation’ problem. But we do have a problem. Unless we make the transition fast enough and soon enough, from being dominators of Nature to partners with it, our future looks very grim. Solutions abound and each year there are more and better ones. The question remains: can we move quickly enough to reinvent ourselves culturally and industrially, so we can meet the global challenges of our era?
In next week’s post (Part 6), we’ll review and celebrate some of the most exciting solutions already unfolding, and touch upon what everyone of us can do to bring forth a new sustainable and harmonious society.