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Russians Work into Old Age Despite Poor Health

High rates of mortality, early death and poor health are the main problems affecting elderly Russians—who nevertheless continue to work and help their children and grandchildren. The state's policy for older citizens should focus on providing better access to quality health care and creating opportunities for Russians aged 50 and over to contribute as volunteers and continue their education, according to participants of the HSE seminar 'Active Aging in the Context of Social Policy: How to Measure It'.

Old age in Russia is traditionally discussed in terms of a decline in the labour force or a burden on the pension system; thus the focus is on the fiscal aspects of aging and particularly on pensions, rather than on the quality of life for older people. However, since an aging population is inevitable and the funding available for pensions is limited, society needs to have a better understanding of older people's economic and social potential and of factors, other than pensions, that can influence their quality of life.

Addressing the seminar 'Active Aging in the Context of Social Policy: How to Measure It' co-organised by the Institute for Social Development Studies' Centre for Studies of Income and Living Standards (CSILS) and the Centre for Fundamental Studies' Laboratory of Public Sector Economic Research, Anna Ermolina, CSILS analyst, Maria Varlamova, CSILS researcher, Lyudmila Zasimova, Deputy Head of the Laboratory of Public Sector Economic Research, and Oksana Syniavskaya, Senior Research Fellow at CSILS, discussed some of the barriers to active aging in Russia and suggested social policy priorities for older people.

Disease and Lack of Social Engagement Hinder Active Aging

According to Sinyavskaya, adopting the ‘active aging’ approach could change attitudes towards older age. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines active aging as "the process of optimising opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age."

Multi-component active aging indices can be used to measure the impact of public policies in terms of tapping into older people's social, economic and cultural potential. Several such indices are available internationally, but until recently, virtually none of them were used to assess the situation of older Russians.

The researchers’ review of Russia's ranking in the Global AgeWatch Index developed by HelpAge International has revealed data errors concerning the size of pensions and the ratio of the average pension to average salary in Russia. According to Varlamova, interpreting this index is difficult due to the calculation methodology used.

An alternative index calculated by CSILS researchers shows that of the four active aging components – work, health, social participation and security – Russia's performance is the lowest in the health domain; early death and high mortality associated with poor health are the greatest barriers to older people's potential to live a long and active life.

In this domain, Russia is far behind BRICS as well as European countries. "Low life expectancy and poor health, including mental health problems, are the main constraints for elderly Russians," according to Zasimova. More than a quarter of all Russians aged 50 and over suffer from various health problems, while nearly 9% report having as many as four chronic diseases simultaneously. India is the only country where the situation is even worse, while in China fewer people report poor health than in Russia.

Another problem is that multiple generations in Russia are often forced to share a home due to factors such as early widowhood, lack of affordable housing for young people, and substandard and limited social services. "We can debate whether the autonomy of the elderly is part of the European tradition and whether strong intergenerational relations and a shared home bring psychological and socio-economic benefits, but we must admit that in this country, the interdependence of generations is often involuntary," Syniavskaya argues.

A lack of social engagement and limited social connections come third on the list of barriers to active aging in Russia. According to Ermolina, nearly 60% of elderly Russians limit their social life to taking care of their own family – children and grandchildren, but never engage socially outside the home. Women tend to be more active socially than men. The Russian elderly have social potential, but rarely use it; even though many know how to use online communication, particularly the internet, they refuse to get involved in the political and social life of their community and rarely volunteer.

According to the European Social Survey data, just 37.8% of people aged 50 and older spend time with friends, family or colleagues 'just to socialise' at least once a week. Limited social life can make people vulnerable.

Education Supports Older Russians' Continued Employment

The researchers identified good education and continued employment as two strengths of the Russian elderly.

Despite very low retirement age and generally poor health, older Russians have relatively high employment rates. Even though many people feel they need to work past retirement age to maintain their living standards, this situation also means that both the country's economy and society are accepting of seniors' continued employment.

In the 2000s, Russia's fast economic growth increased employment opportunities for all age groups; as a result, the number of employed Russians aged 50 to 69 increased by 4.9 million people and reached 16.3 million in 2010, according to national census data. Ermolina notes that 25% of Russians aged 55 and over are employed, placing Russia 15th in the ranking of 29 countries (28 EU countries and Russia)

The proportion of employed Russians aged 50 to 69 has grown by some 11% over the past decade, particularly in the 60 to 64 age group, perhaps due to better education and an increased ability to adapt to the new economy compared to older generations.

According to the 2010 national census, 73.3% of women aged 50 to 54 and 66.1% of men aged 55 to 59 (i.e. in their pre-retirement years) were employed.

According to Varlamova, older Russians are ahead of most Europeans in terms of education; illiteracy in this age group is very low at 0.15% for those younger than 65, 0.26% for 65 to 69 year-olds, and 1.01% for seniors aged 70 and over.

The percentage of older Russians without any vocational training varies from 71% in the 85+ age group to 28% among 50 to 54 year-olds, while the proportion of older Russian with university and postgraduate degrees never drops below 10% even in the oldest age group and is almost 25% among 50 to 64 year-olds.

The only difference between Russian and European elderly in terms of education is that lifelong learning is not common in Russia: for most people, education ends with a university degree, and few people choose to take professional development courses or learn new occupations. This is evidenced by the low value of the adult education component of the active aging index: just 1.4% of Russians aged 55 to 74 have attended any courses, seminars or training in the past 12 months. Sinyavskaya believes, however, that with the right approach to encouraging lifelong learning, the Russian elderly's overall trend of good education could be maximised to support even higher economic activity.

Work and Social Engagement Contribute to Active Aging

Based on a discussion of the situation with active aging in Russia, the seminar's participants came up with a number of policy priorities for older Russians.

First, the state should invest in better and more accessible health care and health promotion for the elderly.

Second, it needs to improve access to quality social services for older people in the home.

Third, conditions should be created for social NGOs and volunteerism to encourage various forms of social activity available to 'younger' seniors.

Fourth, accessible housing should enable people to choose whether or not to share a home as an extended family of several generations.

Fifth, continuing professional development, training and retraining opportunities should be made available to people throughout their working life, and particularly to older workers.

Sixth, labour legislation and the pension system should encourage formal employment of the elderly. In particular, the law on pensions should support long-term employment.

Seventh, various forms of saving provision should be made available, including voluntary pension contributions, insurance and banking products. "And finally, the pension system and the broader social security system should be reformed to reduce the risk of poverty in old age," Syniavskaya concluded.


March 31, 2015