July 6, 2016

Where does working age end? Who is too old to work?

I’ve been trying to draw more attention to the special healthcare needs of the working age population since they power the engine of the economy.  The healthcare industry needs to expand its focus beyond symptoms and select treatments that rapidly restore the ability to function in this group  — to help them recover faster and more completely, to keep their jobs and livelihoods, and avoid the negative consequences of prolonged worklessness for them and their family!  Doctors and other healthcare professionals often don’t really THINK ENOUGH about the impact of their treatment regimens on working people’s lives outside the office.

But as I advocate, I’ve begun pondering that definition: “working age”.  It seems safe to use 18 as the low end of the range (even though kids younger than that do work, most of them are still in school).  But what about the top end?  At what age should we stop seeing work as the norm?  Stop expecting anyone to work?   Start thinking it’s silly to insist on working?  What term should we use to describe those who have lived for a really long time but are still very active and working?  What term should we use to describe people who are the exact same age but the press of years has made them too feeble to work anymore, even though they are “healthy”?  We all know people in both of these categories.  Simply calling them both old seems inaccurate.

I found a thoughtful article from the World Health Organization (WHO) exploring how to define “old” or “elderly” — in Africa!   Have you noticed how often we notice oddities about our own culture when we look outside it?  That’s when we notice the automatic assumptions and blind spots we’ve been living with.

I think you’ll enjoy reading the excerpts I’ve pasted below from the full WHO article.  I have colored in red the parts I found most eye-opening.  They are a breath of realistic and straight-spoken fresh air about how humans age.

Bottom line as I see it:  In developing societies where the administrative and legal fictions of retirement and pensions do not exist, the people tend to define old and elderly straightforwardly and on a case by case basis depending on the actual circumstances of humans as they accumulate years (and as younger generations come behind).  Old age begins when one assumes the social role of an elder, when one withdraws from social roles either because it is time for someone younger to take over or because of decline in physical / mental capability.  And finally, when it is no longer possible to actively contribute, one is definitely well into old age.

By that reasoning, if you are still able to play the roles and carry the same load of a person a decade younger, you are not old yet.  I still don’t know what to call you though.  Or, more truthfully, I don’t know what to call myself.  I am still in there pitching though I turn 70 years old this year.  I did recently give up one of my roles to make room for a younger person who deserved her day in the sun.  Didn’t want to hog it and hold her back.

Proposed Working Definition of an Older Person in Africa for the MDS Project

Most developed world countries have accepted the chronological age of 65 years as a definition of ‘elderly’ or older person, but like many westernized concepts, this does not adapt well to the situation in Africa. While this definition is somewhat arbitrary, it is many times associated with the age at which one can begin to receive pension benefits.

Although there are commonly used definitions of old age, there is no general agreement on the age at which a person becomes old. The common use of a calendar age to mark the threshold of old age assumes equivalence with biological age, yet at the same time, it is generally accepted that these two are not necessarily synonymous.

As far back as 1875, in Britain, the Friendly Societies Act, enacted the definition of old age as, “any age after 50”, yet pension schemes mostly used age 60 or 65 years for eligibility. (Roebuck, 1979). The UN has not adopted a standard criterion, but generally use 60+ years to refer to the older population (personal correspondence, 2001).

The more traditional African definitions of an elder or ‘elderly’ person correlate with the chronological ages of 50 to 65 years, depending on the setting, the region and the country. ….. In addition, chronological or “official” definitions of ageing can differ widely from traditional or community definitions of when a person is older.  Lacking an accepted and acceptable definition, in many instances the age at which a person became eligible for statutory and occupational retirement pensions has become the default definition. ….

Defining old
“The ageing process is of course a biological reality which has its own dynamic, largely beyond human control. However, it is also subject to the constructions by which each society makes sense of old age. In the developed world, chronological time plays a paramount role. The age of 60 or 65, roughly equivalent to retirement ages in most developed countries, is said to be the beginning of old age.

In many parts of the developing world, chronological time has little or no importance in the meaning of old age. Other socially constructed meanings of age are more significant such as the roles assigned to older people; in some cases it is the loss of roles accompanying physical decline which is significant in defining old age. Thus, in contrast to the chronological milestones which mark life stages in the developed world, old age in many developing countries is seen to begin at the point when active contribution is no longer possible.” (Gorman, 2000)

Categories of definitions
When attention was drawn to older populations in many developing countries, the definition of old age many times followed the same path as that in more developed countries, that is, the government sets the definition by stating a retirement age. Considering that a majority of old persons in sub-Saharan Africa live in rural areas and work outside the formal sector, and thus expect no formal retirement or retirement benefits, this imported logic seems quite illogical. Further, when this definition is applied to regions where relative life expectancy is much lower and size of older populations is much smaller, the utility of this definition becomes even more limited.

Study results published in 1980 provides a basis for a definition of old age in developing countries (Glascock, 1980). This international anthropological study was conducted in the late 1970’s and included multiple areas in Africa. Definitions fell into three main categories: 1) chronology; 2) change in social role (i.e. change in work patterns, adult status of children and menopause); and 3) change in capabilities (i.e. invalid status, senility and change in physical characteristics). Results from this cultural analysis of old age suggested that change in social role is the predominant means of defining old age. When the preferred definition was chronological, it was most often accompanied by an additional definition.

…… If one considers the self-definition of old age, that is old people defining old age, as people enter older ages it seems their self-definitions of old age become decreasingly multifaceted and increasingly related to health status (Brubaker, 1975, Johnson, 1976 and Freund, 1997).

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