Focus on the old

This elderly women rides a bicycle with her two grandchildren to drop them at school. A scene in Chennai. Photo: K. Pichumani   | Photo Credit: K_Pichumani

The economic activity of the elderly is often under-recognised, even by themselves, reveals a study of 800 households in Chennai’s slums and the city’s street vendors undertaken by Birkbeck, University of London and the Centre for Law, Policy and Human Rights Studies, Chennai. While 28 per cent of people surveyed over age 60 consider themselves to be working, as do 20 per cent of people aged 70–79, yet further research and observation found that a significant proportion of older people, who do not define themselves as ‘workers’, play extensive, unpaid ‘helper’ roles in petty businesses. The collapse of businesses when older people’s unpaid labour is no longer available (due to accident, illness or death) clearly demonstrates that older people’s work is much more important than is generally acknowledged.

The study found that older people living in five Chennai slums are engaged in more than forty occupations. Yet, this barely scratches the surface of what older people do. While moving about the city we could see older people engage in many more activities than were represented in the slums we studied in 2007-10 and 2012-13.

The study also found that older people take on the work that younger people have vacated in favour of better paid work. Older workers have at least three significant roles in the urban economy. As petty vendors they are the end-point in the distribution of agricultural produce across the city. As cleaners, childminders, cooks and snack-makers, they release a chain of women into the workforce, including expanding the supply of female labour for the factories and IT companies catering to the global market. Older workers keep the cost of inputs and overheads down throughout the economy by processing materials at low cost for critical sectors (eg. breaking bricks to make rubble for the construction industry, sifting sand for concrete), by providing low-cost labour to companies (eg. security services at ATM machines, shops and transport depots) and by providing low-cost services to the workforce (eg. rickshaw pulling, car washing, night watchman services, small building repairs). These, in turn, make the city attractive to investors.

The important contribution of older people to the economy is disregarded by economic policy-makers and planners who, rather than facilitating older people’s work and their transition to age-appropriate work or retirement, appear to subscribe to the two myths of old age dependence and elderly workers as being marginal to the economy. What is needed is a national campaign to uncover exactly what roles older people play in the economy across the country. To this end we are holding a national photo competition with The Hindu and the response so far has been both impressive and insightful.

Birkbeck, University of London,

The Hindu, in association with >Birkbeck, University of London, and the Centre for Law Policy and Human Rights Studies, Chennai, is holding a national photo competition, ‘The Working Elderly’.

This is your chance to get involved in making the work of elderly people visible. Let’s get them the recognition they deserve by showing them in a positive light.

Submit pictures, vote for the pictures you like and share them on social media. Encourage everyone you know to participate with photo entries or as voters. All photos will be visible online at

The first prize is Rs. 20,000, the second is Rs. 10,000 and the third prize is Rs. 5,000. Three runners-up will receive commendations. The most-voted picture will receive Rs. 5,000.

The entries will be judged by Aruna Roy (social activist), Rajiv Menon (filmmaker and cinematographer) and D. Krishnan (photo editor, The Hindu).

The contest closes on July 21 at 11.00 p.m.

For details look up >

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 6:15:03 PM |

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