Demographers consider the Indian population to be relatively young. By this they mean that the bulk (almost 65 per cent) of the population is below the age of 35, and only about five per cent of the population is estimated to be over the age of 65. The fact that life expectancy at birth has been steadily increasing over the last few decades and currently hovers around the early seventies, indicates that the over-65 population seems set to increase in the years to come. The Finance Ministry obviously thinks so, seeing that they have created a new income tax slab for ‘very senior citizens' (those above the age of 80). However, since, as a nation we are still expected to reproduce frenetically, demographers predict that the percentage of over-65s is unlikely to increase dramatically for at least the next few decades. But it appears that the country will soon have a sudden spurt in the number of senior citizens, since the Finance Ministry has also reduced the age of qualification as a senior citizen from 65 to 60.
To me, as interesting as the fact that urban India has increasingly more senior citizens than before, is the manner in which they function today. They are much healthier, more health-conscious, more energetic and more mentally active than were their parents and grandparents. So, we have an increasing number of people who are healthy, active and experienced, with not a lot to do, since they are expected to retire (unless they're self-employed professionals or businessmen) by the time they are 60 or maybe, 65 at the latest. Of course, even if they are self-employed professionals or businessmen, their heirs and heiresses, start muscling into their fiefdoms with gusto when they're around ‘retirement age'. The usual arguments presented to facilitate this are cricketing metaphors. You've had a long enough innings. It's time to retire and let someone else take the crease and so forth. Often the outcome is a bitter struggle for all concerned.
Stereotypes of aging
The biggest psychological issue confronting the soon-to-become and recently-become senior citizens is the ‘need to be needed'. In our country, as one gets older, one is expected to become more satvik and dedicate the rest of one's life to spiritual pursuits, engaging in religious pilgrimages, babysitting the grandchildren and generally making oneself useful in the ‘evening of one's life'. But today's over-60s are still barely in the afternoons of their lives. They are generally extremely hardy and have the ability to contribute so much more not just to their families or their businesses, but to the country and society in general. Look at Anna Hazare! I agree he is a special man, and all of us may not have his vision, conviction or energy, but surely there's more that we can do, particularly when the flesh and the spirit are still reasonably willing, than putting ourselves to pasture? Merely because our active working lives are behind us doesn't mean that we are past our sell-by date and have little to do but to gracefully fade away.
Since modern life places such a premium on work, most of us tend to derive our identities from work. And this applies to home-makers as well, for, they derive their sense of self from being in charge of the home and everybody in it. As a result, when these identities are threatened by retirement or by being asked by the children or children-in-law to take a bit of a backseat at home, many seniors tend to feel rejected, unwanted and unloved. As I see it, becoming a senior citizen is a wonderful opportunity to re-invent oneself. Given today's economic environment, many urban seniors are comfortably off when it comes to finances, what with pension funds, reverse mortgage and other financial instruments being available to even those not particularly interested in them. Also, the fact that parents inevitably end up living with their children (except parents of NRIs, of course) means that they can stop worrying about paying the bills and planning for the future (this still doesn't prevent constitutional worriers from worrying, for post-retirement, they have a new thing to worry about: the future of their children and grandchildren).
We live in a world where there are many things that able-bodied seniors can do. I know of someone who's made a list of 50 things that she always wanted to do, but never got down to doing, joyously ticking off the items from her list every few months. Of course, it helped that she had prepared the list well before she retired. For her, therefore, retirement was something to be looked forward to, not something to be hurt about. As she often says, ‘I've only retired from work, not from life'. In fact, for many people, life actually begins at 60, especially those who realise that their lives are not about being needed, but about their own needs. And all the wisdom they have acquired over the years adds to the depth of enjoyment of even the simplest of things they set out to do. If you don't believe me, ask the members of the Dignity Foundation (www.dignityfoundation.com). They know better than most what it is to be retired, but not hurt.
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