‘As the World Ages — Rethinking a Demographic Crisis’ review: Learning from ageing

On a new approach to understanding the elderly

November 10, 2018 07:26 pm | Updated November 12, 2018 12:53 pm IST

The United Nations says that by 2050 over two billion people — 20% of humanity — will be 60 or over; Kavita Sivaramakrishnan traces rapid worldwide transformations in conceptions of ageing.

In the 1940s and 1950s, western scientists saw ageing as mainly bio-medical, with implications for productivity and national security. Non-western oncologists like Vasant Ramji Khanolkar and Theodore Gillman investigated the effects of poverty, malnutrition, diet, and infections — not employment, even in uranium mines — on ageing, and thereby undermined the often racist theories then underlying gerontology. Western anthropologists, nevertheless, identified enduring patriarchal networks and the unsettlement which industrialisation and urbanisation were already causing in agrarian societies.

It was extremely difficult, however, to establish chronological age in cultures where age and status were marked mainly by events like circumcision or initiation rites. After 1947, Indian officials tried to determine age by people’s recollection of, say, famines (the author’s inference that the officials were trying to shape national memories is somewhat implausible). After the war, gerontological associations expanded. U.S. anticommunism dominated policies, and in the early 1970s oil-price rises caused sharp cuts in state funding for public services. Neoliberals criticised the so-called failure of development, but obscured two key points — the specifiable global successes of post-war social democracy, and the documented managerialist hijacking of social-democratic institutions in the 1980s.

Challenges to neoliberalism were ignored, including Irene Taeuber’s demonstration that transitions to low-fertility societies would not be globally uniform, and Simon Szreter’s exposure of the fallacy that population control alone enables development. The author says development itself is perhaps the best contraceptive, though she could have shown more clearly that in neoliberal doctrine, family matters are private. None of the 62 recommendations made at the 1982 U.N.-sponsored World Assembly on Ageing in Vienna was carried out.

Governments around the world make the family responsible for the aged. India was publicly criticised for its Vienna statement that it had “no problem of the aged,” but its Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act 2007 lays a duty on adults to support their parents. Secondly, the author’s comment that the private sector’s increased involvement is “pragmatic” seriously understates that ideological takeover.

The Indian statute, in effect, restates social and moral orthodoxies. Sivaramakrishnan notes organisational improvements within NGOs, but her comment that many of them do not evaluate states’ and international bodies’ welfare priorities is unfair; India often threatens to expel world-renowned NGOs.

The text is unfortunately diminished by many grammatical and other errors, but the author shows that ageing must be seen in the context of practices, cultures, and histories; those, however, are as challengeable as earlier gerontologists’ racist assumptions.

As the World Ages: Rethinking a Demographic Crisis ; Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, Harvard University Press, ₹999.

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