Growing Old In The Age of Meltdown
What I have been asking myself over the last week or so is this: What meaning does the "financial crisis" have for the elderly? In trying to find an answer, I posed the same question to other people - men, women and the elderly.
In most cases, the range of answers I received were: "I am very worried about the higher food and gasoline prices"; "I am worried about my son and daughter - will they be able to keep their jobs"; "I do not have any money to lose"; "People go into politics to make money for themselves... nothing surprises me."
These answers drew my attention to the impact of the global financial meltdown on the rapidly rising ageing population of Europe. Many scholars and politicians have been predicting an ageing population crisis in Europe for some time now. Here, in the 27 states of the European Union, the increase in the ageing population is significant. One third of the population could be over the age of 65 by 2050. The overall population figure is 495 million. In 2005, just 16.5 per cent of the population was over 65 years. By 2010 it is expected to grow to 18 per cent; by 2030 to 25 per cent; and by 2050 to 30 per cent (Eurostat-2008).
Between 1990 and 2005, the life expectancy of Europeans in the EU rose by two years and women now outlive men by five years. Italy and Germany have the highest ageing increase in the Union. Those in this category can now only face the future with greater anxiety, especially when they see their governments in the midst of a financial crisis. Most voters believe that their governments will not be able to get out of this financial mess, without creating more problems for the already unemployed or the soon-to-be-unemployed. Most pensioners believe that their pensions are at risk in all the EU member states. In fact, a political party has been formed on behalf of pensioners in Slovenia.
Elderly women have a double vulnerability regarding receiving a decent pension in their own right. This is so because even if they have been in the paid labor force, it has often been in the lowly-paid service sector or because they have worked all their adult working lives in the informal sector, in the home, or for the family. This informal sector work has had no market value placed upon it and, therefore, no benefits have been assigned to this form of labor. The World Bank, for example, insists on discussing the "waged labor force" and nothing else.
Alongside the increase of the ageing is a significant decline in the number of births. This decline brings with it many financial resourcing problems. For example, working age benefit payments decrease and this, of course, creates a lack of financial resources for healthcare, pension systems, education, unemployment benefits. The entire financing and servicing of the public sector gets impacted in the process. All these factors, plus the ageing of the population and a decline in birth rates, have now to be seen within the context of a financial crisis. This makes it incumbent on governments to rethink EU's development trajectory as a response to this reality - a demand that has been consistently raised by mass movements for the ageing and women.
One of the unique features of post-war Western Europe was the rise of the "welfare state" within a mixed economy. This welfare state system was happily accepted by governments, trade unions and the general public. The idea was undermined somewhat when multinationals emerged in the 1960s. From then on things began to go wrong because the powerful corporate sector was out to promote anything but a "welfare state". They had a different idea of development. It was to be economic development only, and the multinationals were going to use the political arm of the private sector (polyarchy) to gain full control over national and international fiscal and monetary policies.
Polyarchy functions under a US system that UK economist Joan Robinson once characterized as "bastard Keynesian" theory. A bastard theory, which took away from the Keynsian economic model of the early 1940s the very thing that Keynes at that time, at least, wished to protect: the right of governments to control their own monetary and fiscal policies. This right is no longer operative. Money exchange is a gamble. It is a globalised "winners and losers game" and - as in card playing - "when no rules are agreed upon... clubs are trumps".
Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winner in economics, who was once a top economist with the World Bank and who is currently a professor at a major New York University, recently observed, "People around the world once admired us (America) for our economy and we told them if you want to be like us - here's what you have to do - hand over power to the market." He adds, "The point now is that no one has any respect for that kind of model anymore, given this crisis.
It appears that the EU will require some strong anti-liberalization, anti-deregulation and pro-social development legislation to be taken up by leading EU politicians, by the EU trade unions and by the general public if "social cohesion" is to become a reality. What the planners and policy makers now know is that that this uncontrolled US-led style of economic development and private sector political involvement cannot promote social development. What the elderly and women know is that a government that does not have social development as one of it key policy components is not a government that can offer them a secure place in the work force, in the home or in society.
Politicians, planners and policy makers confronting this last financial crisis cannot pretend that they do not know there is a high price to be paid whenever they embrace this particular kind of US model of economic development. The public sector must be "downsized"; wages must stagnate and water, health, education and basic services must be privatized. All of these approaches come backed by media campaigns which are in turn financed by the all-powerful corporate sector.
As long as this model remains the dominant one, the elderly and women will continue to be marginalized and anxious. It is tough to be growing old in the age of meltdown.
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