This blog was contributed by Chris Roles, Director of Age International.
The world is undergoing a demographic revolution. We are currently witnessing the dividends of improving health care and living standards in fast rising longevity across the globe.
The number of older people over 60 years old is expected to increase from about 600 million in 2000 to 2 billion by 2050. This change will be most dramatic in developing world countries where the number of older people is expected to triple during the next 40 years.
But as often happens with demographic change, social attitudes and legal protection lag behind, with policy makers scrambling to keep up with the transforming landscape.
As our global population ages, there is an urgent need to reassess what role individual societies give to older people to ensure they are able to enjoy a decent standard of living and can continue to contribute to society as long as they wish. Shunting older people to the side-lines of our communities is not only unjust, it makes little sense for countries to miss out on the huge opportunities that longer life brings, and the asset that older people represent. For example, older people act as carers to their family – in sub-Saharan Africa 40% of AIDs orphans are looked after by their grandparents. In addition, many older people continue working and also pass on important knowledge and skills to younger generations.
The prejudices of ageism are prominent around the world. In most countries it is still considered perfectly acceptable to deny people work, access to health care, education or the right to participate in government purely because of their age. Not because of factors related to their health or physical incapacity, but merely because of the date on their birth certificate.
Indeed, apart from one exception (on migrant workers and their families), international human rights conventions do not recognise specifically that age discrimination should not be allowed.
Human rights are of course universal and so older peoples’ rights are protected in a general sense by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but the absence of an explicit mandate against age discrimination allows it to slip under the net and continue as acceptable practice.
So Age International is pushing for progress towards a new UN convention on the rights of older people, to clarify how rights can work better for people in later life. In August, Governments will gather in New York to discuss how to strengthen the protection of human rights for older people as part of the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing. As part of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Older People and the HelpAge global network, Age International will be calling for Governments to put solid proposals on the table.
We have learned from the experience of other human rights conventions for children, women and disabled people that giving governments greater guidance on how to protect the rights of people in specific circumstances can make a huge impact on their wellbeing.
What it means to be “human” and live with dignity, respect and security requires different responses from society depending on our age and physical circumstance. This is widely accepted for other demographic groups, and should be the basis for our approach to older people. Older people are not a homogenous group – differences in how we age, our economic status and social standing underline the arbitrary nature of age discrimination. It is as baseless as race or gender discrimination.
So what is the cost to our global society if we fail to protect older people’s rights?
As the world experiences rapid population ageing, the pressures that result in age discrimination are likely to intensify. In many countries the debate about how to adapt to a changing demographic has been framed in terms of how working age people will cope with the “burden” of an ageing population rather than recognising the value and potential older people bring to their communities when they live healthier longer and are involved.
Experience shows us that if discrimination is made legally unacceptable, impetus is given to a societal shift in attitude – witness for example the transformation of women’s lives in countries where sex discrimination laws have been passed.
The need to make older people’s rights clearer in law is increasingly important in many developing countries, where the impacts of the HIV crisis, conflict and parents seeking work in the cities have often meant grandparents are taking on the care of their grandchildren at a time in their lives when they most need support.
So by enshrining older people’s rights in a UN convention, not only will we ensure that we will all have the best chance of enjoying security and dignity into old age, but also ensuring that those caring for the next generation are given the best possible environment to raise happy, healthy, productive future adults.
As Governments meet to discuss older people’s rights in August, they need to tackle these issues head-on and make sure that global human rights legislation is future-fit and able to respond to the opportunities and challenges of ageing in the 21st century.