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Older people's work should be recognised

25 Jul 2013

An older woman weaves a basket. (c) Penny Vera-Sanso & CLPHRSIn just three weeks the Photo Competition on the "Working Elderly" became a people's research project, revealing the widespread and diverse nature of older people's work. 

With nearly 3,000 pictures uploaded it is a permanent online record of older people's work from across India's mountains, plains, deserts, coasts, villages, towns and cities - an irrefutable documentation of what older people do and how they contribute to the economy, both locally and nationally.

So far these pictures have drawn over 25,000 votes from thousands of visitors to the website and provide no hiding place for so many stereotypes of old age. Casual reference to "old age dependency", "old age burden", "people of working age" as aged 15-59 years and the unthinking denigration of older people's work as passing time, helping out or "just..." are now revealed to be more fiction than fact.

Huge range of work carried out by older people

The photos show a huge range of work and could even be used as lessons in how things are made.

The older woman picking cotton buds or cutting cane for brooms, the older cobbler sewing seals for large drains, the older rickshaw puller moving two-wheeler tyres from the manufacturer to the mechanic, the older man breaking and clearing ground for construction, the older gang-menAn older rickshaw puller. (c) Penny Vera-Sanso & CLPHRS who ensure that one of the world's largest employers, India Railways, operates safely. The list is endless. And the conditions of work are diverse - too diverse to describe here.

Yet despite the diversity depicted this isn't the whole story. Most pictures have been taken of people as they work in public view and during the hours of the day the general population are awake.

However, our research (2007-10, 2012-3) reveals that in the middle of the night, older men and women are working. To our surprise we found that long before younger hawkers arrive on the first bus, older wholesalers, porters, hawkers and rickshaw pullers are working these markets in order that everyday necessities are available in every neighbourhood at the start of the day.

We also found that older people sell tea and hot food to late night workers and suspect that older people are working at many other things while the nation sleeps.

Older people are doing vital work for their country

Our research also revealed that many older people work in hospitals, schools, banks, factories, restaurants and offices as cleaners, porters, security, peons, ayyas, gardeners and in many other roles, yet they have not appeared in the photo entries so far.

What are the policy implications of such widespread working of older people? First, that working older men and women are doing vital work for the country and family. This work needs to be recognised for what it is and fostered.

Second, the vast majority of older workers clearly live precarious lives in or on the edge of extreme poverty and many are doing work that eats into body and soul. What older workers need is a meaningful pension that will enable them to choose whether and how much to work and will empower them to refuse the most onerous and demeaning work.

Photos can be seen at www.thehindushutterbug.com. Voting closes 28 July.

Blog written by Penny Vera-Sanso, Lecturer Development Studies, Birkbeck, University of London

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Penny Vera-Sanso
Job title: Birkbeck, University of London

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International.