The twilight bloomers

The twilight bloomers

Ten years ago, an overconfident Mark Zuckerberg declared: “Young people are just smarter.” Today, after the Facebook fiasco, a more humbled Zuckerberg  apologised: “We could have done better.”

This reminds me of an article I had read somewhere about a 94-year-old army veteran, who had invented a cheap battery that he hoped would revolutionise the motor car industry and see the end of petroleum-fueled vehicles. The same genius had baffled industrialists and scientists earlier with the invention of the lithium-ion battery on the eve of his 60th birthday. “Who says that creativity dies with age?” asked the writer.

On the other hand, creativity seems to thrive as one gets older and sheds the baggage of youth. New burdens, mostly health-related, may haunt you as you get older.

But fortunately, you would have cultivated enough poise and confidence to carry them lightly. We, in India, are a resilient lot. And highly creative, too. We have musicians in their 70s enthralling audiences with their soulful music.

When a 90-year-old Bismillah Khan performed from his wheelchair in Bangalore, the audience forgot his age - mesmerized by his music. The passing years did not deter Carnatik musician TV Sankaranarayanan either. His concerts are still a treat. Veteran dancer Vyjayanthimala laughed and said, “Age is just a number,” when I had asked her the secret of her success at 80 years.

There were many others in myriad professions, doing a great job in their sunset years. We had the celebrated Mokshagundam Visvesvarayya in Karnataka, who not only created the largest reservoir in Asia, but visualised a bridge over the Ganga when he was 90 years old. G V Iyer produced an epic trilogy, while younger filmmakers struggled.

Mysore Vasudevachar had reached the venerable age of 80 when he joined Kalakshetra to compose the music for Rukmini Arundale’s dance drama on the Valmiki Ramayana, while A N Moorthy Rao dared to write a controversial novel “Devaru” in his 100th year.

Then, there are veteran filmmakers like Mrinal Sen or Mani Ratnam who never ceased to astonish us. And, iconic journalists like Arun Shourie, who still dazzles as he releases his latest book. These are the ageless warriors who continue to dominate in their professions. Such being the case, it is amazing why so much of creativity, combined with experience, is not valued in this country.

Teachers, doctors, scientists and professionals in various fields are strictly “retired” from service at the ages of 55 or 58 when their intellectual abilities are probably at their best. While younger talent needs to be recognised, we cannot afford to lose out on the vision acquired through experience either.

Positions of excellence

Several countries, especially foreign universities, create positions of excellence to make use of such inspirational seniors. Whereas, we in India, carelessly discard the talents of such professionals.

According to the last census report, there were 104 million elderly persons who could still contribute meaningfully to society. On the other hand, the number of pensioners in India has been rising rapidly. This means that the government is spending more money on an ageing population that no longer contributes anything in return.

On the other hand, it has to be provided free healthcare and other benefits. So, retaining employees and their talents for longer periods may be a better economic option. Instances are not rare when a government employee opts for premature retirement, then draws a handsome pension for decades. If his spouse outlives him, she draws half his pension during her lifetime. No wonder, the government spends a staggering amount on pensions alone, totalling to nearly 9% of the country’s GDP.

Perhaps, the problem lies with our attitudes towards ageing. Indians view retirement expenses as the government’s responsibility. Rarely do we view it as a personal obligation. An interesting study made by the Pew Research Centre of 21 countries, reveals that people in the US, Germany and Britain feel that economic well-being in old age rests with the elderly citizens themselves. If we, in India, convince ourselves that we are responsible for our wellbeing in our old age, we will shift the burden from the government to ourselves.

It is now up to our governments at the Centre and in the states to make sure that the working-age population does not shrink further to bloat the pension-drawing one. As the Pew report rightly points out, if a small working population has to support a growing number of retired dependants, it can lead to an economic slowdown.

On a personal level, too, this is an unhealthy trend where the working members in families have to support their ageing dependents, making it a painful experience for both.