Under the current development model being pursued across the world, the aging poor in Third World countries face a bleak prospect: they must no longer expect to be taken care of by their families (as is happening in the West), and they will have to continue working in old age (unlike the West).

The great demographic issue in the coming decades in the developing countries, according to Alexandre Kache, Head of the World Health Organisation’s Aging and Health Division, will no longer be the rate of population increase, but the growing number of old people. India will soon have more people over 60 than any other country in the world.

Yesterday, the number of children being born was the problem; tomorrow, it will be the elderly. The only thing these troublesome groups have in common is that they are poor. Alexandre Kache went on to say, ‘For the developing countries, pensions, in the sense of the developed world, are pie in the sky. They do not exist, and will not exist.’

In spite of this, he foresees a future where the traditional support of family will also have decayed. ‘The extended family is an illusion, because as soon as you start the process of modernisation, the structure of traditional societies becomes very fragile.’

Here, stated with unambiguous clarity, is the impact of ‘modernisation’ upon poor societies: it means the loss of one form of social security, without any compensating gain. It seems that even the pretence that development means the more or less serene progression from ‘backwardness’ to Western-style social security has been abandoned.

The response of the WHO to this bleak prospect is to advocate ‘the economic insertion’ of the elderly poor, so that they may retain their independence, and do not become a burden to families falling apart under the influence of urbanisation and industrialisation. Only recently, the crusade against child labour was the humanitarian cry of the hour. Does this mean that in the future we shall have to campaign against geriatric labour?

The assumptions behind Kache’s statements are extremely revealing. The first is that the development model being pursued across the world - with a few eccentric recalcitrants like North Korea and Cuba - allows of no variant or deviation.

All cultures, irrespective of religion, tradition and custom, will evolve in such a way that the elderly must no longer expect to be taken care of by their families (as is occurring in the West). They will have to keep on working in old age (unlike the West). It is clear that in spite of their predetermined pathway, the future of the developing countries will only partly replicate the example they have been bidden to follow.

In other words, they will have all our social problems, but without sufficient wealth to take care of them. This represents the worst of both worlds, and the leaders of these countries should listen very carefully indeed to the sub-text, the messages between the lines, which, as always, are more eloquent than the opaque words on the surface.

Even at face level, the prospect of the elderly of the Third World remaining at work is dreadful enough. For despite the survival into old age of many poor people, thanks largely to new drugs and the technology of longevity which have spectacularly enhanced life expectancy in the West, in what condition should such survivors expect to be? Since many will have started work as children, it seems somewhat brutal, to say the least, to ask them to prolong their employment, already enfeebled and impaired as they will be, by half or three-quarters of a century of hard labour.

Does this suggest that septuagenerians will become rickshaw-pullers in the Bangladesh of tomorrow, when most such workers are worn out by the age of 40? Instead of rows of nimble-fingered young countrywomen standing 12 hours a day before rows of microchips or bent over sewing-machines, shall we see lines of weatherbeaten grandmothers trying to exercise their arthritic joints in the same labour?

Will elderly maidservants still be up before dawn to prepare meals for able-bodied adults in the middle-class suburbs of Manila and Mumbai, as their abused and overworked daughters do now? Or will the same generation of girls have grown old in the service of their masters, in search of the ‘economic integration’ so necessary for the aging poor in developing countries, but certainly not demanded of their Western counterparts, those powerful holders of the grey dollar or pound?

It seems that from every point of view, the poor are appointed to resolve all the contradictions of globalisation. If they have children to look after them in sickness and old age, the ‘population explosion’ threatens to overwhelm the planet. If they fail to have enough children to relieve the State of responsibility for their declining years, there will simply be mass destitution of the aged.

This form of development offers the poor the moral and material paradox of a choiceless liberty, a deterministic freedom; and it is up to them to find a solution. The WHO - and all the other international humanitarian agencies - well know that ‘modernisation’ dissolves all customary relationships, tears the fabric of kinship, corrodes the webs of human connectedness. The majority of people in the Third World must reconcile themselves to all our miseries, without any of our very tangible consolations.

Those who are young now, impoverished, hungry, jobless, their youthful energy and exuberance unwanted by the global market to which they have been involuntarily driven, must wait another 30 or 40 years, that they may then be set to work to redeem their redundant longevity - what a sublime gift to a new generation, the knowledge that both their youth and their age will be seen as a burden to a harsh, unkind world!

Behind the rhetoric that makes of an ‘aging population’ a matter only for adroit administration, lies a cold-eyed vision of a future in which the poor will continue, in one way or another, to defray the costs, not only of their poverty, but also of the maintenance of the rich in the style and manner to which they have become addicted. - Third World Network Features


About the writer: Jeremy Seabrook is an author and freelance journalist based in London.