Talking About Our Generations

Elderly Marshallese woman, a returned US migrant. © IOM/Joe Lowry 2013

By Joe Lowry

"“When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now”… Paul McCartney may not have lost his hair, but he’s certainly well past the milestone of 64 that he sang about back in the 1960s.
With some notable exceptions, the populations of countries, particularly in the West (or the global North as we now conceive the more developed countries), are living longer. They are also having fewer children and have higher expectations for a long and happy retirement.
Most people at the turn of the 20th century Europe didn’t live much beyond 40 years, meaning their productive lives spanned a little over two decades. Now, the middle classes of Europe, North America, Australasia and several Asian nations are planning for at least that long as retirees.
There is much talk about the greying of Europe, but the pendulum is swinging East too. Fully 12 per cent of Asia’s population is already over 60, and this figure will more than double by the halfway point of this century.
The economic giant that is China has two-thirds of its population at working age today. By 2055, one third of its population will be over 65.
Another veteran of the 60’s, Roger Daltrey sang “hope I die before I get old”. (He hasn’t.) If he was thinking of doing a rewrite in an Asian context, he might write “hope I get rich before I get old”. This is unlikely to happen in Asia: Thailand and Viet Nam have become “aging countries” in a little over two decades – about one fifth of the time it took for European nations.
Today, the International Day of Elderly Persons, is a time to reflect on the links between aging and migration. As retirement ages edge towards 70, will we see a new category of migrant emerging, the “senior migrant”?
Will seniors migrate in search of work, or, as is already happening, travel as carers for young children? Will this be how elderly migrants will make their contributions?
Or will the only role for the elderly be to mind the children “left behind” by migrating parents? This is a massive and unseen trend, more domestic than international, particularly – but not only – in China, with its massive rural-urban migration.
The huge flow of migrants from conflict zones and repressive regimes into Europe has caused fears that the bloc’s social welfare system will be unable to cope. In fact, migrant advocates insist, an influx of young, healthy migrants is just what Europe needs right now, to ensure that economies continue to grow and that there are workers to fill the jobs created, and swell the coffers of the state pension systems.
The challenges of a healthier, fitter, elderly population will not be solved without advanced planning and creative thinking. Well- managed migration will certainly help to solve the dilemma. Ageing, labour-receiving countries will have a work force to care for its elderly and allow them to enjoy the fruits of their productive years, and the elderly in the sending countries, those without advanced social welfare systems, will benefit from the remittances sent home.
Win-win? Let’s hope so.