When I travel to see HelpAge International’s work in over 70 countries, I see that farmers are older people. When I look at who is raising children, I see again that it is older people.
International Labour Organisation statistics tell us that, globally, nearly half of older men and a quarter of older women are working – and we know that in developing countries, many more are economically active.
For example, in Malawi over 90% of men and women over 65 years old are working. It could not be clearer that we need to rethink accepted definitions of what it is to be "old" and stop casting age as just an economic burden.
As people’s health begins to fail in older age, it becomes difficult for those who have earned a living through physical labour to continue working.
And it is these same older adults who have no access to social security of any kind. Their vulnerability to poverty is extreme. It is worsened in most countries by the crippling costs of medical care, assuming they can even access this.
But this is only half the story. It is not just that older people have needs. They are also making huge contributions to family, community and society.
In poor communities, throughout the world, older people are breadwinners and entrepreneurs. They care for grandchildren, especially in households where the children’s parents have migrated for work or died. Older people are householders, farmers, volunteers and community servants.
And substantial numbers of older people contribute economically.
For example, 67% of older parents in the Philippines help their children financially, as do 55% in Thailand. In Australia it is estimated that women between the ages of 65 and 74 years contribute $16 billion per year in unpaid caring and voluntary work.
When I came to HelpAge International, I was age blind. In the years since, I have come to understand the need to work across generations.
I am shocked to see how few resources are allocated to older people. Compared to other vulnerable population groups, they are neglected.
HelpAge is one of a very small number of international organisations working on population aging with older men and women. In contrast, there are hundreds of organisations doing great work with children.
But we fail both our ethical and economic obligations when we ignore aging. For this reason it is critical that the post-2015 development agenda should incorporate goals for all different stages of life.
New plans, laws and budgets are needed. Countries that develop national economic, social and cultural plans for ageing are those that will be most successful in the future.
As a priority, governments must:
- Extend universal measures for social protection and old-age pension coverage.
- Introduce flexible employment, removal of forced retirement and retraining opportunities.
- Develop support systems that ensure adults receive the long-term care they need.
- Support a convention on the rights of older people.
- Ensure the inclusion of older people in national development and humanitarian responses and ensure the post-2015 framework is age inclusive.
Ageing in the Twenty-First Century is a challenge but also a cause for celebration.
This blog is part of a series in recognition of the UN's International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Oct. 17.