“You never hunt the young, you always go for the old.”, my roommate explains to me as we debate over whether small-scale hunting could counter unhealthy production of packaged meat. All this, while ironically eating some delicious chicken that we bought from the supermarket across our house.
(Un) surprisingly, this logic pervades our mentality more than we think.
Society systematically views older generations as disposable as they are no longer economically productive citizens. We constantly find the need to ‘invest’ in young people’s education, healthcare and happiness and ‘divest’ from the old. While this is not unjustified, the neoliberal language of ‘investment’ we use while speaking about demographic groups is what is problematic. We strive to make sure returns on investment are higher incrementally – that young people need more attention as they will be the ‘productive citizens’ of the economy,pumping in money, spending on the newest iPhone and consuming enough to generate
a generous multiplier effect. All this for the ‘leaders of tomorrow’.
The political and economic narrative today views the older
generation as the complete anti-thesis- unproductive, no longer contributing but instead mooching off the
welfare system with pensions and use of public health care. So what did the
Dutch government do when budget cuts came knocking on their door?
Answer with cuts on healthcare and related subsidies for senior
The development industry is no different. For the international
development sector, concentrated in the North, each demographic group serves an
essential purpose in contributing to the development process. Conventionally,
the group between 14-22 functions as volunteers, helping in fundraisers and
event-planning. Next comes those between 23-26, the infamous (unpaid) interns
and trainees. Their struggles, highlighted by their precarious ‘middle’ position
between mature youth and inexperienced adults.
Next follows an age of stability. The group between 27-67.
These are fairly secure (even if it is an insecure job market), with fair
salaries, benefits and numerous promotions as policy advisors. But then, what next?
What happens after you turn 67 (in the case of the Netherlands) and must retire?
A 70 year
old woman approaches your organization wanting to be a volunteer. She is extremely
enthusiastic and eager to contribute. The only open position and need you have
is for fair trade campaigning at an upcoming poetry rap & slam event. What do you do?
Large INGOs release calls for volunteers but are unable to
realistically configure older people in their campaigning and lobbying
activities. The argument is they aren’t techno-savvy enough and quick on their
feet. So the only place that is found for them is as sources of donations.
Their passion and energy is unfairly contracted into a simple stream of money. Aren’t
young people more outspoken and have more enthusiasm to lead change anyway?
In this context, where does the role of the Gray Panthers lie? Or what about the hundreds of Private
development Initiatives in the Netherlands run by people 55 and above? PUM is an interesting
example in the Dutch context. Duncan Green writes
about this dilemma and the discussion that follows highlights the limited
role of older people in project management or as donors and not enough in knowledge
sharing, skill dissemination and campaigning.
This is not to state that older generations are not strategically
liaised with in the development process, but as ‘activists’, how can we
adequately engage with them at a local level? The idea of an ‘Overlooked
Activist Potential’ of older generations offers some insights.
My colleague who just got back from a duty trip put this
dilemma into perspective. She said to me earlier today -involving young people
and youth-led organizations is the newest item on the checklist of being a
progressive organization. However, she was pleasantly surprised when she was in
Mali, conducting a workshop with representatives of NGOs. She noticed that inspite
of the heterogenous age composition of the working groups, a synergistic alliance
of roles emerged. Older people were moderating the discussions, but also
respecting young people as they claimed space for their voices. This was not
it. Markers in hand, taking meticulous notes, young people successfully led the
group’s opinions into the plenary.
Increasing space for young people did not mean an equivalent
decrease in the space for older people to express their active citizenship. In
a country like Mali where age equates your status and authority, this synergy
could serve as inspiration for INGOs to do the same.
Tasneem Kakal is working on building the Oxfam Novib Academy at Oxfam Novib. Born and raised in Mumbai, she believes in the magic of intersectionality for development. Her passion for change is as contagious as her love for smoothies.