Thursday, December 18, 2014

The poor problems of longer life expectancy

The December days in India are about family and friends, yes.  But, it is also about guavas.  Every day, I eat a guava with breakfast, a guava or two after lunch, and a guava in the evening.  I suppose it is a pedestrian fruit to the locals who don't seem to care for it at all.  The locals do not know what they are missing out on ;)

A couple of days after landing in Chennai, I walked--bag in hand--to the guava vendor at the street corner. He said it was forty rupees for a half-kilo.

"Forty?" I was genuinely surprised because I think it was only thirty a year ago.

"Usually it is fifty, sir.  Because you are a regular customer it is forty."

The guy was trying to humor this customer!

Two days ago, I walked over there to restock.  He was not there.  No guavas.  I came home empty-handed.  As if the cosmos were watching out for me, my sister came home with a bag of "farm-fresh" guavas.

I wonder about that vendor.  His livelihood is from selling guavas.  If he is sick and is unable to work, then he loses the day's income.

That's is no different from the story of the tailor whose business is nothing but a foot-pedaled sewing machine and needles and threads on the sidewalk.  He has been gone for a few days now because of an appendectomy.  The guy is now financially set back that much more.

Or, take the case of the maid, er, domestic help, at my parents' home.  An older woman, she has been off and on this past week because she is not feeling well.  Even though I have no idea about the local protocols, I told her that she need not come to work if she is not well.  My father joined me.  "At some age, you need to retire and let your sons and daughter take care of you" he said.

She snorted.  "Like they will take care of me.  If I don't earn my livelihood, I won't get any food."

I think about these real people as I consider the celebratory news on the global increase in life expectancy:
Global life expectancy for men and women has increased by about six years over the past two decades, according to one of the most comprehensive studies of global health done so far. The rise in global life expectancy is mainly the result of dramatic advances in health care.
In richer countries longer lifespans are spurred by a big drop in deaths related to heart disease, while poorer countries have seen big declines in the death of children from ailments such as pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria.
In the old country:
In India, which is on track to become the world’s most populous country in less than two decades, life expectancy at birth rose from 57.3 years to 64.2 years for males, and from 58.2 years to 68.5 years for females, according to the Lancet study.
Which is wonderful, indeed.  But, who takes care of the living? In the bad old days, when average life expectancy at birth was a low number, one really did not need to worry about the burdens of old age; there was no need when even living until forty was a big deal.  But, increasingly the worries of the old maid will be the stories all over the world.  As a species, and like other animals, we would have died much younger.  We have artificially lengthened our life spans and created hassles along the way.  I love the fact that we have been able to conquer many ailments that killed us by the millions.  But, am I in the minority to be concerned about the individual and collective responsibility over the tail end of our unnaturally long lives?

"I won't come tomorrow because I am going to the doctor" the maid said as she was leaving.  "But, I will be back the day after that."

All I could do was helplessly nod my head.

Later today, I hope to see the guava vendor.



Ramesh said...

I don't agree for too much sympathy on the economic front (I am all for sympathy on grounds of loneliness, some horror diseases, dementia, etc all associated with old age).

Too many of us do not prepare financially for old age and then suffer the consequences. Savings of Rs 5 per day from the age of 20 to the age of 60 (working life), will result in a corpus of Rs 1 million on retirement - decent enough to live reasonably OK. In India, such a scheme is called the Public Provident Fund with almost guaranteed returns and no losses. Throw in medical insurance taken early in life and again , barring a disaster, you are covered reasonably. The people you have quoted as examples in your post can all save Rs 5 per day. The real problem is people take on debt ridiculously (for a a house they can't afford or a marriage function or dowry or some rubbish like that). They don't save regularly and systematically and blow up money when the times are good. The good years go by quickly and when old age comes, there is no money.

So economically, I do not have much sympathy. Its other old age issues which are gut wrenching.

Sriram Khé said...

Oh, there is no denying that the characters I mentioned are like most people anywhere on the planet who don't seem to think about their old-age selves and don't plan enough for the needs ... And, yes, the power of compound interest will make life simpler if only ...
But, two issues:
1. the changes in terms of life expectancy have been phenomenally quick for most humans to instinctively understand the implications. Thus, I assume that for the most part we continue to operate with the mentality that has kept us going for thousands of years--which is to feast when we have because who knows whether or not we will be alive tomorrow.
2. The "irresponsible" spending you mention is a solid reason why the fundamental assumption of the rational consumer in economics is wrong. Homo Economicus exists only in econ textbooks but the real people in the real world are far from rational. Some of the interesting ground-level observations in the book "Poor Economics"--like how a poor person might forego buying a banana and instead buys unhealthy and fatty food--are revealing in how "irrational" we humans are. In our analytical discussions, we forget that when it comes down to it, we are not that much more "evolved" from the animals that we really are ...

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