Census figures everywhere confirm that the population of the world is getting steadily older. Much has been written and alarms have been sounded in richer nations about the economic effects of aging populations and declining births. But this phenomenon is going global. Better health and smaller family size are prolonging lives in developing countries as well, albeit at different paces and levels of livelihood. Because women generally outlive men, especially in industrial nations, there are mounting demands for more attention to ending gender disparities in valuing older women and what they can contribute to society.
In the developing world, where 82 percent of the world’s women live and die, the hardships of life may be more physical. “Many older women suffer significant health inequities, enjoy fewer human rights, and have less financial security,” the executive director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, wrote in the 2016 edition of The Journal of AARP International, an annual publication of the organization, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.
Mlambo-Ngcuka, a South African, also noted: “There is a critical need to address violence against older women. Yet, for many developing countries, data on violence against women are measured only for women of reproductive age: 15 to 49 years.”
In richer societies, women’s lives and needs are very different, but older women in these cultures are often invisible, sidelined or submerged in generic studies of old age that do not consider gender differences or value the potential of senior women, who are too easily stereotyped.
In Australia, a body of recent research is emerging from a large project titled “Retiring Women: Understanding Older Female Work-Life Transitions,” financed by the Australian Research Council and three industry partners. Women over 50 years old in the public sector and universities, most with professional experience and skills, were interviewed. The majority were still working but others had retired.
Though women in professional jobs or living in retirement varied in their views on continued employment — full time, part time, flextime, even voluntary work — one finding stood out, wrote Catherine Earl, of Federation University in Australia, in the AARP publication.
“The deficit of quality part-time jobs for skilled older workers is a significant deterrent for extending working lives in line with current public policy,” she wrote. She quoted a retired woman who had given up looking for employment that met her qualifications.
Earl added: “She says, ‘I thought that my skills and my experience would, you know, not be in demand, but would be valuable, would be valued by others, but I don’t think that they are.’ “
In a separate report published by Oxford University Press, Catherine Earl and a co-author, Philip Taylor, both in the business school at Federation University, studied current management strategies dealing with the employment of older women. They found much room for rethinking and improvement.
Looking at Australia in particular, but reflecting on similar approaches globally, they wrote: “The approach taken by Australian policymakers deals with older workers — labeled as ‘mature-age’ and defined as those aged over 45 years — as one employee group. This approach demonstrates gender blindness. Yet [as other researchers] argue, the retirement pathways of women and men typically differ, so age management strategies should be framed differently for women and men.”
Older women are often seen as burdened with less energy, uncertain health and more responsibility as caregivers, all factors being challenged by new research, which also found that men are sometimes offered more money to remain employed, while professionally qualified women are offered positions that may be part time at lower pay.
As the world nears a population of 7.3 billion people, about half of them women, the demography is clear. According to data produced by the United States Census Bureau in its world midyear population projections for 2016, the numbers of young boys and girls at age 1 are not far apart: 66,835,844 boys and 62,588,834 girls — with male toddlers outnumbering their female counterparts. At the other end of the spectrum, at age 100 and beyond, the story is turned dramatically upside down: there are likely to be 95,252 men still alive and 409,458 women.
Lacking a dedicated agency in the UN to deal with the fast-growing aging population globally, the independent organization HelpAge International has become the focal point of extensive study of older women and men and advocacy on their behalf. HelpAge has buttressed the work of many local organizations in developing countries such as Ethiopia and India, where women often try just to stay alive when their reproductive years are over.
In Ethiopia in 2010, HelpAge International, the International Organization for Migration and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs assisted the Elderly People and Pensioners National Association of Ethiopia in surveying older people in Addis Ababa, the capital. Ethiopia, like many other developing nations, does not have a universal social security system or guaranteed pensions except for government employees, the military and police. Life expectancy is about 64 years for men and women.
The Addis Ababa survey found an increasing number of homeless people on the streets, 88 percent of whom did not have enough to eat. Fifty-one percent of all older people said they had no family support, a shocking departure for a society that traditionally cared for its senior citizens. More than three-quarters of the elderly in the capital had chronic health problems and 93 percent had no access to baths or showers. Women who had lost their homes faced high levels of poverty and distress, local charities found. Disabilities were left untreated; rates of cataracts and advancing blindness were high. These women, homeless or in makeshift shelters, had no opportunity for securing incomes or financial support. They had no hope of joining in productive activity.
In India, K.R.G. Nair, author of the book “Status of Aging in India: Challenges and Opportunities,” has written that both elderly women and men are suffering abuse and abandonment, and he advised authorities not to forget the “young old” in their 60s who were still capable of making an economic contribution if they were given jobs.
To counter abuse of the vulnerable elderly, HelpAge India has opened telephone help lines across the country, offers mediation in families — where much of the physical and psychological abuse takes place — and has pledged to report cases of violence, recognized universally as “elder abuse” to the police.
Rich or poor, women should have the most to gain in coming years if the new Sustainable Development Goals keep to their promises of better education and health care for women and girls, an equal voice in the community, an end to systemic violence, equal treatment under the law and access to employment without regard to age and gender. The potential of the world’s women is enormous, but their opportunities are too often limited, especially in their senior years.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.