Probably the best-known statistic concerning India is that more than 50 per cent of its population is below the age of 25. With 356 million 10-24-year-olds and more than than 65 per cent of its population below the age of 35, India also has the world’s largest youth population. By 2020, the average age in India will be 29. There is another set of equally pertinent statistics. There are now 104 million elderly Indians. While the overall population of India will grow by 40 per cent between 2006 and 2050, the population of those aged 60 and above will increase by 270 per cent in the same period. According to the United Nations Population Division, India will host 48 million seniors over the age of 80 and 324 million citizens above 60 in 2050. In any other year, you would have read these statistics earlier in October. But this year, given the critical cross-border situation in the country at that time the World Elderly Day on October 1 was spared the usual perfunctory speeches by politicians.
Abuse of elders in India is more rampant than we are willing to admit. Factors like loneliness, health issues and dependency combine to make ageing a terrifying time for seniors in India. But perhaps the biggest culprit in this scenario is the word retirement itself. Retirement comes with the loss of a steady income (in the private sector, no more than eight per cent of retirees have pensions, while nine in 10 have no health insurance or assured incomes, says a CRISIL report), diminishing social life and the fear of increasing isolation. Also given the fact that more and more people in their late 50s or 60s are living an active life, thanks to better healthcare and increased fitness, the prospect of retirement at that age is an event seldom looked forward to. Yet little thought has ever gone into taking a fresh look at the concept of retirement. At least not in India.
But in 2011, the UK took an unprecedented step in this direction. On October 1, 2011, a new legislation in the UK stopped employers from compulsorily retiring workers once they reached the age of 65. The exceptions were jobs that required certain physical abilities or had an age limit set by the law, for instance, the fire service or military. The UK’s employment minister at the time, Edward Davey, has been quoted as saying, “Many older people have skills and a huge contribution to make to businesses and those businesses that have got rid of fixed retirement ages find it very beneficial.” Two-thirds of the country’s employers no longer fix a retirement age.
The UK’s reasons to introduce the concept of no retirement age had probably more to do with economic and demographic compulsions. But in India, these drivers would probably thwart such a move. Nevertheless, the social benefits of such a move would probably be so significant that it certainly warrants a thought. Even economically, the fallout is not as bad as initial kneejerk reactions — quoting the country’s unemployment rate, for example — would suggest. While by 2020, India is set to become the world’s youngest country, the old-age dependency ratio — the number of people aged 60 and older per those aged 15 to 59 — is expected to rise from 12 per 100 to 31 per 100 by 2050. A higher dependency number and a greying population that is not part of the workforce puts more pressure on a government in terms of expenditure on medical care, pension and old age homes. The Indian Railways, for instance, pays pension to 13.35 lakh persons and a recent white paper on railways projects the amount to be around Rs 46,315 crore in 2017-18. Multiply this with the spending required by other government agencies and the amount would be staggering. The economic implications of a no-retirement policy in India, however, cannot be this simplistic and one would have to work out various complicated issues to even moot such a move. But doing away with retirement does merit a re-look on social grounds.
By 2021, the elderly in the country will number 143 million. The youth population that year will be 464 million. Given this ratio, the investment in the youth in the country is understandable. But for too long the elderly have reconciled to a life sans self-respect. Even a concerted thought towards reversing this is probably worth much more than all the empty speeches and promises that October 1 brings.