Ageing gracefully

Thursday, 3 October 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

SRI Lanka has emerged as a surprisingly comfortable place for old people, according to a recent study that places it in the 36th spot in the world, and opens up fresh discussions on how such policies can be improved upon for a rapidly ageing population. While Sweden’s top ranking – followed by Norway, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada – may be predictable, the Global AgeWatch index throws up some surprising results. The Global AgeWatch Index is the first global index to rank countries according to the social and economic wellbeing of older people. The US, the world’s richest country, languishes in eighth place, while the UK fails to make the top 10, residing instead at No 13. Sri Lanka ranks 36, well above Pakistan at 89, despite similar levels of gross domestic product (GDP). Bolivia and Mauritius score higher than the size of their economies may suggest, while the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China are a mixed bag. Brazil and China rank relatively high on the index; India and Russia sit much lower. While the enabling environment for older people in Pakistan is perceived as very poor, older Sri Lankans rank their social connections, physical safety and civic freedom highly. This, and Sri Lanka’s overall position in the Index, is consistent with the country’s Human Development Index ranking. The report notes how Sri Lanka’s current over-’60s population have benefited from progressive social welfare programs earlier in their lives, which may also be an important contribution to later life satisfaction. This is a commonality seen with Scandinavian countries that introduced sweeping social welfare services well before their economies reached developed levels. In fact most economists argue that the reason Sweden, Denmark and Norway reached high levels of development was due to such investment. On the downside, a trait that Sri Lanka shares with developed countries such as Japan is a rapidly ageing population. A World Bank report has already warned the share of the population aged 60 or more will increase from 11% currently to 16% by 2020. Later increases are projected at 29% by 2050, and 34% by 2080. Unless there is distinct change to employability of the older population, dependency ratios will rise and the economy will have to bear the brunt to maintain a largely productive age group laid off because of age. Such increases in real monetary value could be as high as about 5% to 7% enhancing inflation, job competitiveness and spawning social problems. Australia, for example has already increased retirement age to 65 to encourage older people to continue working. This is one policy that has been suggested for Sri Lanka as well but pose challenges as Sri Lanka’s job growth has not increased significantly despite economic growth. Policy making at government level has also been lagging behind with ways to move beyond standard social welfare all but ignored. Managing pension funds, healthcare, transport and housing will have to be the top priority of the government if Sri Lanka’s elderly are to be kept happy. The private sector has slowly moved to address these concerns despite the lack of formal universal agreements. While one can argue that Sri Lanka is ahead, regionally it needs to do much more to continuously improve life standards of the elderly, especially in the face of disintegrating traditional family and social structures.