Research and ageing
Old age is the period between decline and death. It does not correspond to any particular age; rather, it comes on gradually and differs widely from one individual to another. Unlike this long, slow process, retirement is an administrative step established on a set date, regardless of the retiree’s state of health. When the age of 65 was proposed as the retirement age, the average subsequent survival was two years; in 2012 in Spain it is over twenty. Provided circumstances do not change radically as a result of economic crises or other disasters, life expectancy will continue to rise and most of the population will live well beyond 75.
A society’s ability to maintain a population that does not participate directly in market production depends on technology, organisational efficiency and the value system. Technological progress is facilitating physical survival, and organisational efficiency has enabled production of surpluses and capital gains. However, only the system of values decides what social groups this surplus should reach and who is left out of the redistribution.
Philosophers, linguists, historians and anthropologists have all contributed to our understanding of old age. For legal disciplines, it is something of a test-bed, as old age affects capacity, consent, intra-familial and intergenerational obligations, mechanisms of substitution and transmission. However, a large part of civil and political law is implicitly grounded in the idea of fully capable subjects, making the law ill-suited to the new reality in which a growing share of the population lives in a state of semi-capacity, but avoiding being taken into guardianship on account of the emotional, social and economic complications recognising this status entails. Among other issues associated with ageing, Spanish society has to provide a legal solution to two demands that surface from time to time and reflect a deep social malaise: the obligatory nature of retirement on reaching the retirement age (what happened to the implementing regulations of the Sustainable Economy Act?) and individuals’ lack of autonomy when confronting their death.
Biology, medicine and biochemistry are contributing to slowing degenerative diseases. Their progress is linked to pharmacology and engineering. But research is also looking at death itself, as understanding the final stages of life can contribute to improving quality of life in general. Epidemiology or social medicine brings the work of humanists and social who deal with the topic of death closer to that of biologists, doctors and lawyers, just as urban planning overlaps with architecture and engineering.
Demographers are predicting the ways in which the population of very elderly people will change over the short and medium term, with differences by region, gender distribution and other such characteristics. Economists are analysing the elderly population’s income and spending, the goods and services they consume, their links to the economy comprising the rest of the population, and last but not least, their sustainability as a group. Sociologists’ task is to analyse the social causes and consequences of ageing and foster the search for organisational innovations for the state, families, firms and religious or non-profit-making groups, as they are all affected by ageing.
Faced with the challenge of how to integrate people whose physical maturity is behind them in the social structure, different societies have been able to “invent” an extremely varied range of forms of age. From simply getting rid of old people to granting them honours and privileges. From similar treatment for all old people to treatment so differentiated that they heap penalties on some and rewards on others. They have also been able to forget what they invented in order to try new forms.
Age is a particularly important topic for women, as they generally live longer than men, so their likelihood of spending the last years of their lives alone, in poor health, and with limited financial resources, is very high. Moreover, despite progress towards equality in education and the workforce, the task of looking after the elderly still mainly falls on their shoulders.
Old, but not retired
In developed societies, as a result of the implementation of welfare and social security systems, the proportion of the population that has passed the retirement age is growing constantly. The proportion of people who are able to work but excluded from the labour market and live from their retirement income is growing, while the proportion of dependent people in poor health who need to work in order to survive is growing. In Spain, according to United Nations data, over-eighties accounted for 1% of the population in 1950; in 2010 they accounted for 5%, and in 2050 they will account for 11%. If these figures are translated into care needs, the over-eighties required 2% of the total population’s care-giving time; in 2010 they required 10% and in 2050 they will require 21%.
We need to counter the idea that the retired are a group who only consume and do not contribute to society by bearing in mind that the definitions of productive and unproductive are a matter of convention and depend on how they are adopted. If it were not for the unpaid, but highly efficient, work done by people in their sixties (and many over-seventies and quite a few over-eighties), interfamilial support networks would fall apart. In a country in which free public care for infants, the disable and the dependent elderly are scarce, old people provide essential care, allowing younger generations to reconcile (although often badly) work and parenthood, and prevent public services from collapsing. If it were not for them, the quality of life of the other generations would suffer or the tax system would have to be revised upwards to an intolerable extent. As regards the contribution of elderly women, there are hundreds of thousands of non-retired women (in the sense that they do not receive a pension) who devote many hours of unpaid work to other dependent family members who cannot pay for market care. They are extremely active, although invisible to Spain’s economy and society.
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