Vinay Kumar Srivastava

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[I] spent [my] childhood playfully;

youthfulness sleeping;

cried at the sight of old age.

– Lines from a Hindi film song


In England, about two-thirds of all hospital beds are occupied by those over 65. It is a huge economic burden on the community to meet the cost of retirement pensions and support vast medical social services. Besides, a great strain is placed on the younger generation to look after them.

– Park and Park (1970)1


Dyallpur in Punjab is seen as becoming ‘grey’: this ‘greying’ being synonymous with the elderly being left behind to look after themselves while the younger members of the family tread distant lands for better opportunities. The victims are aged parents who, having spent their life in bringing up their children, are ultimately left to fend for themselves.

The Hindustan Times (9 July 1999)



MY work neither involves working with senior citizens nor on old age. Like most students of social anthropology, I am interested in kinship systems. However, my focus is more on the rich (i.e., upper and upper middle class) and elite strata of Indian society as it has been grossly neglected in the discipline with its concentration upon the institutions of tribes and peasants. An empirical study of kinship systems begins with the most elemental kin group, the family, which forms the cornerstone of human society. Studies on the family begin by exploring the rules of descent, succession and inheritance of office, domestic deities and ritual apparatus, wealth and other material appurtenances. It is in the passage from the elderly to their descendants that we look for the operation of these rules.

Kinship deals with the basic facts of life: birth and death. Populations are replaced but cultural rules and patterns of behaviour endure. The old are replaced; the new recruited and trained who, over time, get ready to be replaced. The developmentally-oriented view of life is the pith of kinship studies.

For the purposes of this brief note, we look at the elderly population, initially in the context of family, and then move to other institutions, of which the state is of tremendous importance. This is our vantage point: contextualizing old age and its bearers in various institutions.

During fieldwork in an upper and upper middle class neighbourhood in south Delhi, I spoke at length with some old people who spent most of the time at home while their sons and daughters-in-law, or daughters and sons-in-law, were away at work. From these conversations I learnt that age stratification is concomitant with ageism, a concept that implies discrimination on the basis of age categories. The maximum discrimination experienced by the aged was within the family. However, paradoxically, it is the family, a ‘primary institution’ in Abram Kardiner’s words, which can tirelessly fight ageism.

In April 1997, at a meeting of Sandhya Jyoti, an all-India association of senior citizens, one speaker suggested holding Mr India and Ms India contests for old people. The point this ‘elderly citizen’, as he called himself, was endeavouring to make was that the aged were not discarded people, they were ‘very utilizable and useful’. Given the overarching emphasis society and its institutions place on youth, vitality and physical attractiveness, older people tend to become marginalized or ‘invisible’. Many others who spoke at the meeting, felt that older people should be ‘brought into the mainstream’. True, that none of the speakers were in any position to specify what that mainstream was, or which social ingredients comprised it. However, everyone intuitively knew that the need of the hour was to make older people more visible, ‘drawn centripetally’, so that not only were their needs and demands recognized but that they could emerge as a strong interest group. The proposed Mr and Ms India contest represented a symbolic expression of the changing attitudes towards old age.



It has to, for the ‘global experiment in life extension’ is underway.2 Certain demographic facts are on record. The life expectancy of the ancient Romans was 22 years; an average global man today can expect to live for 65 years. The lowest lifespan today is 38 years in Sierra Leone; the highest is in Japan where a male is expected to live for 76 and a female for 83 years. Just 57 years ago, Japanese men could expect to live for only 35.4 years and women for 43.6. The average lifespan in India today exceeds 62 years, which in 1983 was around 52.

As a result of better nutrition, advances in public health, improved sanitation and myriad medical breakthroughs, the average human longevity has nearly doubled in the last 100 years. It will further increase: it may triple, quadruple, or perhaps the very concept of lifespan may be eliminated.3 Human beings may live forever, with death becoming an event of the past. Bruce Sterling, a science fiction author, in his book Holy Fire describes the process that transforms a 95 year old woman into a girl of 20. In a complete cellular overhauling, new genetic material is spliced onto the ends of each of her chromosomes, a technique which not only revives her youthfulness but possibly negates the concept of lifespan.4



The global increase in longevity has led to a population explosion of older people. In the United States of America, people above the age of 65, who number 35 million today, will double by 2030. So will those who are 85 plus, sometimes called the ‘oldest old’, numbering about 4 million today. In Japan, one in six persons is over 65, and in a dozen years that proportion will change to one in four. India’s elderly population (i.e., 60 years and above), which in 1996 was 60 million, is projected to rise to 76 million by 2001 (i.e., 7.7% of the population) and 113 million by 2016 (8.9% of the population).5 The global elderly population is expected to touch 612 million by 2000. Reliable information on ‘centurion old’ (people living for more than 100 years) is not available for all countries; however, their number too has been steadily rising.6

Meantime, there has been a steady decline in global birth rates. It is not only because of the ‘population bomb’ that couples are encouraged to have fewer children – the ‘one-child’ norm adopted by China has been enforced punitively. Changes in gender relations (especially the ideology of gender equality) and several culturally tolerated alternatives to traditional institutions of family and marriage (such as cohabitation, gay families, staying single) too have contributed to decreasing fertility. It is observed that many married professional women prefer to remain childless; pregnancy and child-rearing is often interpreted by them as an onerous burden that thwarts upward career and professional mobility.



Modernity is inversely related to fertility and the desire to discover self-fulfilment in one’s progeny. This ideology is most fully expressed in the western world; its individualism standing in marked contrast to the centrality otherwise accorded to large scale kin bonds. An individual desires to see himself achieve whatever he sets his eyes on, rather than expect his descendants to achieve what he has not been able to in his own lifetime. Self-fulfilment, more than an indirect fulfilment through investment in children, is what characterizes the modern man.

A drop in birth rates has important repercussions for the elderly. In proportional terms, fewer young and middle-aged people will be available to care for the older population in the years to come. During my fieldwork in urban south Delhi, I came across many households that consisted of grandparents, parents and a lone grandson. It was the grandson who was expected to look after the elderly. One may imagine the pressure such grandsons experience. Many sons and grandsons, I learnt, sacrificed opportunities for career enhancement, especially those which demanded their geographical mobility, because they had to look after their old and ailing parents and grandparents.7

How the world will cope with a rising elderly population remains to be seen. While not furthering alarmist arguments, it is clear that younger groups will be entrusted with larger and graver responsibilities than now. Many nations are likely to promulgate laws requiring children, sons and/ or daughters, depending upon the descent principle recognized by society, to take proper care of their parents in their dotage. Infringement of such laws will gradually become a serious offence as the elderly population becomes more ‘visible’ (demographically as well as politically) and its problems multiply manifold.



Old age is a cultural construction, in much the same way as are the other phases (‘vocations’) of life. For heuristic purposes, we have devised concepts like chronological age, biological age, psychic or mental age, social age, and many others. Since these are our constructions, each of them relevant to a specific discipline, problems are likely to surface when a specific categorization of age is sought to be harmonized with another. Take for example chronological age with social age; while the former is reckoned in years counted from the date of birth, the latter (social age) grades life in terms of activities an individual is supposed to carry out from birth to death.

A synchronization of chronological age with social age results in foregrounding normative propositions like ‘girls should get married before they turn 25’, or that ‘one should retire at the age of 60’. In other words, activities are spread out according to the presumed conception of the chronological age.



One can easily visualise increasing conflict in situations when a global extension of chronological age is unmatched by a corresponding change in social age. In Britain, for example, the age of compulsory retirement for most men is 65, while for women it is 60; this despite the fact that women outlive men by several years.8 Many European nations today favour a reduction in retirement age as a possible solution to ever-increasing unemployment. In these contexts, the beginning of old age coincides with retirement and is associated with particular kinds of welfare benefits, such as provident fund, pension, leave encashment, gratuity, and insurance payments.

When people retire at the age of 60 (or 65 as in these countries), they are invariably healthy and can still work for long hours and under pressure of time. They can easily continue with the same job for another decade or so without any substantial loss of efficiency. Retirement, thus, creates social, economic, and psychological problems for such individuals and quite often for members of their households.9 A conflict situation arises because of a clear mismatch between chronological age and the corresponding gradation of social age. When the average life expectancy in India was 52, the retirement age for central university teachers was 65; this remains the same despite an increase in longevity.

It is against the dialectics of these two relations that we can understand ageism. To recapitulate, it is in relation to younger and middle-aged citizens, and second, in the relation between different age categories, that ageism makes sense. Ageism may be defined as discrimination against people on the basis of their age. It is an ideology much in the same way as sexism and racism.10



To retire women at 60 and men at 65 because of a perceived decline in their working ability and output is an example of the practice of sexism. To proclaim that people of a particular race are endowed with lower intelligent quotient than others indicates racism. Similarly, there are many stereotypes of older people. In Britain it is commonly believed that ‘most of the over sixty-fives are in hospitals or homes for the elderly; that a high proportion are senile; that older workers are less competent than younger ones.’11 It is likely that many of these beliefs might have come to dominate our consciousness because the young and middle aged citizens felt threatened about their future once they found that the coveted positions were being monopolized by older people. Such perceptions are equally widespread even in those social situations where the notion of retirement does not apply, like those relating to the world of arts and politics.

Robert Atchley rebuts many of the ageist stereotypes prevalent in English society. He points out that 95% of people over 65 live in private dwellings and not in hospitals or homes for the elderly. Less than 7% of those over the age of 80 show pronounced symptoms of senile degeneration. The working ability and attendance records of workers over 60 are often superior to those of younger age groups.12 Moreover, many tasks require experience for their accomplishment. In many cases, younger workers need to be guided by their senior colleagues. In a society marked by individualism, potential hostility between the younger and older age groups can be mediated by pointing out that their relationship is analogous to the one between the individual and culture; the former is high in energy, the latter in information. The young are the repository of energy, the old of knowledge; a synergism exists between the two similar to the interdependence between the individual and culture.



Many activist groups of older citizens have come into existence to combat ageism in the West. As the old form a larger proportion of the population they are likely to acquire greater political influence. In the US they have already created a powerful political lobby. Similar developments are visible in Britain. The scenario is set for a manifestation of antagonism between the younger and older citizens. One of the questions raised by an article in the National Geographic (1997) was, ‘How would future generations fare in a world where the elderly – no matter how beloved – refused to depart?’

Growing ageism can be checked by encouraging sociological measures and strengthening institutions. Giddens (1989: 600) writes: ‘A redefinition of the value and contribution of older people would increase the general level of social tolerance. Benefits at the moment monopolized by the young and middle-aged might perhaps become more evenly distributed in the future. At the moment, people in these age groups have a monopoly over education, work, power and material rewards. A more even distribution of these, from which older people can draw just as much profit as younger individuals, would be in the interests of social justice.’ For bringing into existence a just society, a revolution in ethical and moral dimensions is imperative, and the family can play a big role in heralding it.

The problems of the old are usually expected to accentuate when joint families and households break down. This argument is similar to the one put forward by the Zagreb anthropologist in Lawrence Cohen’s book, who believed that since the North-Eastern Indian hill community he had researched did not have ‘bad families’ (it had joint families) there was no senility, no dementia, no Alzheimer’s, no ‘crazy oldies’.13



Such views are normally forwarded by those who base themselves on a middle class picture of society and take for granted that something resembling a joint family was common to all strata of traditional society. In this they are mistaken. Social anthropologists and sociologists have abundantly shown that the emergence and social reproduction of the joint family is predicated on specific conjunctions of ideological and material factors.14 Economic and ideational inequalities characterized all traditional societies. As an institution, the joint family was far from being common in all layers of society; that even in the landed, propertied groups, it was not prevalent at all points of time. After all the family, like any other institution, is a process in time.

Equally, it is wrong to assume that older persons were always respected and honoured in traditional societies. Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist, in his study of the sociological causes of suicide, documented cases from societies where the elderly not needed for the tasks of production and other work, were obliged to kill themselves. Durkheim called this an ‘obligatory altruistic suicide’.15



Even the concept of renunciation, so central to the understanding of Hinduism, was probably devised as a way to keep the elderly out of the mundane society, dominated by the young and middle-aged. Perhaps at the latent level, renunciation was an ideological instrument to separate the young and middle-aged from the elderly, so that the people on their way out did not meddle with the affairs of the world which were the prerogatives of the people in the vocation of the householder (grahastasrama). Scholars writing on non-renunciation have shown the crucial importance of the householder (the young and the middle-aged) in perpetuating the economic and social life of the community.16

It is wrong to assume that the position of the patriarch, honorifically called karta, of an upper caste and class joint family, exemplified the typical pattern of a traditional society. Ethnographers have documented numerous cases of maltreatment of the old people, in verbal and physical terms, in villages which stereotypically are supposed to mete out the best treatment to their elderly population. Heise et al. have documented many cases of elder abuse, especially of widows, in the US (the only country for which such data is now available).17

During fieldwork with Rajasthani villagers, I routinely encountered situations where the elderly were abused for failing to do an assigned task to the satisfaction of others. They were often sternly admonished by their descendants to mind their own affairs. Little interest was paid to their suggestions. Often they were interrupted and told to be as pithy as possible. No wonder, whenever they found a listener (a role best performed by social anthropologists and sociologists), narrations of their life-event and stories were literally ceaseless.



Otherwise, the old people were a ‘muted lot’, to borrow the apt words of Edwin Ardener – their tongues were tied and lips pursed because of the structure of dominance. It was not that they did not speak, or put forward their point of view, but that they remained unheard. And if bed-ridden, their sons and daughters-in-law who served them grudgingly, routinely cursed them for their predicament, their karma. The glorification of the aged in traditional societies is perhaps more of an assumption than an ethnographically supported fact.

Even though most episodes of elderly maltreatment take place within the family, it nevertheless remains the most important institution for initiating an ideational revolution in society to effectively combat ageism. The role of the family in bringing up new generations of people is fundamental. Many values and ethical norms are inculcated in the young by the family. Children are the personalization of the sub-culture of the family in which they have been socialized. To combat ageism and to provide its critique we need to inculcate a view of life as a process; the family can play a central role in disseminating this ideology.

The proposed National Policy for Older Persons highlights (i) the need to regard life as a continuum and the age after 60 as another phase; and (ii) the need to create an age-integrated society with strong bonds between different generations and thereby create conditions suitable for the elderly to stay with their families. Both these aims can be best realized with the active intervention of the family.



Stronger bonds between generations can be created not by the measure of fiat, in the sense of making senior citizens press legal claims against their children for not taking adequate care of them in their old age, but by bringing about endogenous changes. The desire to take proper care of one’s parents and grandparents should emanate from within, from a particular ethical (i.e., human) viewpoint, instead of being imposed and sanctioned from outside

‘Within’ changes carry conviction. Thus the conditions suitable for the elderly to stay with their families are not premised on a utilitarian model of a good samaritan, baby-sitting and policing the household, answering telephone calls, and handling domestic chores. Kinship, love and affection should have priority over economy, utility and profit. Within this framework, I keep my mother with me because I love her and not because she takes care of my children. She baby-sits, for she is a member of the household and not the other way round. The potential of the elderly has first of all to be acknowledged in the family. It is within the family, rather than through the state, that we can visualise a possibility of ameliorating the condition of the elderly.



To sum up, the definition of the concept of age is largely dependent upon the nature of the discipline; hence we speak of the biological, sociological and psychological conceptions of age. Old age is also culturally constituted; its connotation in a simple society may be qualitatively different from that in a complex modern society.

In recent years, older people, who now constitute a large proportion of the population of the industrial society, have started to press for greater recognition of their distinctive interests and needs. The struggle against ageism is an important aspect of this development. The family, as an institution, can play an exemplary role in fighting against ageism, and in the realization of many aspects which are now enshrined in the proposed National Policy for the Older Persons by inculcating a developmentally oriented view of life in succeeding generations.

One possible way of bringing the elderly population into the mainstream of society is through furthering an ideological revolution at the level of family. By focusing on the family, the intention is not to undermine the sociological importance of ‘family-like’ institutions, such as homes for the aged. However, we should not forget that a move to these homes may amount to announcing to the world that an inmate has produced unfilial children. No older person would like to make his children a butt of ridicule. I learnt this from my conversations with the old people in south Delhi and rural Rajasthan.




1. J.E. Park and K. Park, Park’s Textbook of Preventive and Social Medicine, Banarsidas Bhanot Publishers, Jabalpur, 1970, 13th edition 1991, p. 328.

2. See S.K. Ramoo, ‘When You’re Old and Grey’, The Hindu, 18 August 1997; Jeffrey Kluger, ‘Can Science Slow the Ageing Clock?’ Time, 20 January 1997; Rick Weiss, ‘Ageing: New Answers to Old Questions’, National Geographic, November 1997.

3. Kluger (1997: 47).

4. c.f. Kluger (1997: 52).

5. See the advertisement inserted by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, in the national dailies on the International Day for Older Persons, 1 October 1999.

6. For instance, the number of centurion Japanese has risen from 153 in 1963 to nearly 7400 in 1996 (Kluger 1997: 46-7).

7. See Kumkum Srivastava and V.K. Srivastava, ‘When Peers are no More: Some Rambling Thoughts on Old Age’, The Anthropologist 1(1), 1999, pp. 25-35.

8. Anthony Giddens, Sociology, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1989, p. 598.

9. See Herbert S. Parnes, Retirement Among American Men, Lexington Books, Lexington, Mass., 1985; John van Willigen, Gettin’ Some Age on Me, The University Press of Kentucky, 1989.

10. Giddens, op. cit, 1989, p. 600.

11. Ibid., 1989.

12. Robert Atchley, Social Forces and Ageing, Wadsworth, Belmont,1985; Also see Giddens, 1989, pp. 598-600.

13. Lawrence Cohen, No Ageing in India: Modernity, Senility and the Family, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 16-17.

14. See A. M. Shah, The Family in India: Critical Essays, Orient Longman, 1998.

15. Emile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, (first published 1897, 1952 ed).

16. T.N. Madan, Non-renunciation: Themes and Interpretation of Hindu Culture, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1987.

17. L. Heise et al., Violence Against Women: The Hidden Health Burden, World Bank Discussion Paper, 1994.