Sunday, July 08, 2012

The dignity of old age

The over-population argument is simple. Global population is 7 billion today. It will rise to 9 billion (or 10 or 11, whatever) by X year. The planet cannot support this size population. Disaster will result. Thus dramatically reducing the global population growth rate is critical and must begin right now if a global disaster threatening the survival of the human race is to be avoided. End of argument.

This argument leaves an impression, although usually unstated, of hundreds of millions of poor people in poor nations having six, seven, eight children while scraping out a miserable existence. The implication is that “these people” need to reduce their birth rate so the world can survive and thus we must begin to convince them of that and very quickly.

Is this the reality? Actually, not really.

The number of children a woman of child-bearing age will have during her lifetime over the last half-century has fallen from 4.91 to 2.36. In order to replace herself and her husband, a woman must have two children, then a little more on average to make up for women who never give birth and for children, primarily 2 years or younger, who die before they can reach the age of procreation. If the average hits that "replacement rate", than population will stabilize over time. In most of the "advanced economies" the rate is 2.1 or slightly higher. But the world includes many nations where infant and child mortality rates are high, so the replacement rate for the world as a whole is 2.33. Compare 2.33 to 2.36. In 2000, the Brasil's birthrate was 2.4 children per woman, already dramatically down from decades past. Today it has dropped to 1.9 children, below replacement level and on a par with many developed countries.

So why is global population still rising? Lifespan.

Since 1960 longevity has increased almost 50% (low 50's to almost 70 globally) Nor is it the beginning of the lifespan where the problem is found, for although children consume without producing, they are the very people who will provide the productive adults of the future who will build their communities and the world. They represent future production that can vastly outweigh their current consumption. Yes, a minority will die before they can produce, but the majority will far out-weigh them in impact. The problem is found at the end of the lifespan. Either voluntarily or out of sheer necessity, old people cease to produce, but they do not cease to consume. In fact, their consumption of many resources (that is what the fuss is all about), notably health care, can increase dramatically.

Birth and fertility rates continue to decline and show no signs of reversing. The increase in lifespan continues to rise and shows no sign of reversing. If you follow the advances in bio-medicine, nanotechnology, stem cell research, and genetic engineering, you will understand that average lifespan has the clear potential to increase a decade or more in our lifetimes. It is why the state is constantly talking about the “old age” problem.

 Retirement is not as old as you think. Pensions in the UK date only from 1908, and the cost of the first pension schemes was tiny, as the retirement age of 70 was 20 years beyond average life expectancy. Retirement was for heaven – if one had lived a virtuous life.

Despite the pressure coming from an increasing number of older and disabled adults, growing at 3 per cent a year, fewer than 14 per cent of councils now provide care to those who they categorise as having "moderate needs". In contrast, six years ago, 40 per cent of councils provided services to people needing the same level of care. Ministers support proposals to reform funding for elderly care "in principle" - but delay a decision about whether the changes will go ahead.

This has imposed a demand upon the "welfare" state which it is reluctant to support. Richard Humphries, Senior Fellow for social care from health think tank the King's Fund said: "We will never get decent care for the elderly without tackling the fundamental question of funding. The facts are simple: the population is getting older, we need more care, and the costs have to fall somewhere."

Both Tory and Labour have resorted to measures to reduce the burden upon the capitalist. One was of course to make the old work longer by raising the retirement age. Yet that is not suffice so other remedial reforms are prescribed ranging from overall rises in taxes - deemed politically unpalatable and in the long run would have to be be paid by employers from the surplus value extracted from their work-force, anyway - to specific rises in National Insurance for the elderly i.e. a reduction of the actual pension, or means-testing for benefits. Capitalism is rationalising the costs of elderly healthcare to the limits of social and moral acceptability, by cheapening operations, and turning them into private profit-making businesses where possible. Socialists are sickened but not in the least surprised by the current crisis to provide the elderly and infirm with deserving decent dignified care.

"They promised so much but politicians have failed us. I remember in 1997 when Tony Blair promised that no one would ever have to sell their home. Then nothing. And now this Government – promising so much when it got into power, and yet doing nothing...If people have savings or houses, they are stripped from them."
Pauline Turner, 67yr carer to mother with Alzeimers.
Under the current system, pensioners have to pay the cost of their care home place if they have savings or assets worth more than £23,250. As a result, the number forced to sell their homes has risen by 20 per cent over the last decade, with more than 24,000 forced sales last year,

 For socialists we have a commitment to take care of our elderly. This is common to virtually all cultures. One test of the morality of a society is how it treats its elderly. Until recent times, the older members of human communities commanded respect as the bearers of accumulated wisdom. In any society those who cannot work have to be maintained out of what is produced by those who do work. Everybody would agree that this is fair enough as far as people over a certain age are concerned. Yet ageing populations are increasingly being seen as a threat to prosperity, rather than a sign of human achievement and progress. The “too many old people” doom merchants are ignoring that productivity also increases over time, so that whereas there are indeed proportionately less workers engaged in production they are able to produce proportionately more wealth. It is the increasing productivity that will go on between now and when existing workers retire that will mean that society, even capitalist society, will be able to support the expected increased proportion of retired people in the population. We shouldn't be aiming to extend the domain of work into old age, but to extend the domain of non-work into young age – that is, to abolish the concept of retirement altogether. A socialist society no longer has the need to work its labour force into the grave. It already has "enough". There will be no need for the elderly (except for the very old and very infirm) to "retire" from a three-hour-a-day work week. Nor will there will be no need for younger workers to work more than three hours a day. We will all be "retired" from their work.

SOYMB could fill this blog with quote after quote about the appalling care for the elderly under capitalism today. Join us and help to build a new society where young and old can live out their lives with respect and real dignity in a world where the true meaning of community - from each according to ability, to each according to need. Socialism will abolish of the concept of retirement and fulfil the promise of a world of leisure by providing the material prequisites of a good life, regardless of age or physical ability.

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