Curtains of Numeric Lives: Perspectives on ageing and the neo-liberal world

senior citizens elderly

Capitalistic Chasms and the Disenchanting Age

A grotesque imagination of pluralism beholds a complex aura of experiencing diverse cultures, faiths, traditions, belief systems, existential principles, undercurrents of ideologies and imaginations. Excavating oneself through the convoluted layers of social relationships, interactions, organisations and realities can prove liberating as well as enslaving in manifold senses. Such concoctions of manoeuvred sociality and dogmatic reaches (of what is ‘normative’) also ambiguously accommodate the founded and ubiquitous presence of a person, who is not merely an archetype of the non-swagger cult of the ‘modern’ capitalistic construction, but a living being whose embodiments are chequered within the cornerstones of hegemonic youth ‘swag’, knowledge, activism and ageing. This vision undeniably draws our attention towards the crude socially arranged impediments of ageing, elderly selfhood and potentialities, which survives across domains of capitalistic work organisation and neo-liberal culture.

B.N. Chatterjee, a man in his mid 60s from Assam, imposing a hyper-vigilant tone about the numerous traumas posed by the wavy phases of the pandemic, narrates his innate voice through complex emotions, remorse, anguish and despondency. He states, ‘Amar age taa arr number nei kintu barrier. Ami arr notun chakri pacchi naa karon amar age dekhe monee kore ami buroo arr ami labour dite parbo nah’ (My age is not a number anymore but a barrier. I am unable to join any new job because my age makes them prejudge my strength and energy to perform hard labour). This outburst no less decodes the mantle of an evaluative social system where ageing dismantles the legitimisation of performative citizenship and claims produced through the relationships of production, consumption and distribution. Here, ageing locks horns with the iota of imposed dysfunctionality. It can be chained or incarcerated by the larger neo-liberal capitalistic order.

Decaying Facets and the Promotion of ‘Youth’

As a youth thriving in her mid-20s, my conscience struck hard when I discerned the cut-off speeches sprawling from B. N. Chatterjee’s mind and body. The dithering aspirations and permeations of mind and body raise high bars for the elderly than that of the young. The aged mind is disseminated as the reservoir of wisdom and experiences while the aged body is rendered docile and powerless at the backdrop of the super-sporty capitalism, enraptured through ‘youth’ voices and hegemony. These discursions render peripheral liminality for the elderly who are ‘living and leaving’ across the dyads of tradition and modernity, control and adaptation, authoritarian self and destabilised social status. Such dyads also cocoons stratified symbols and polar social roles which are irreducibly complex to decipher. These are often delivered across the non-membership of the elderly and the larger horizons of corporate models that legitimise ‘youth’ as well as their workability and consumptive aesthetics for the reproduction of economic and social resources. Moreover, sinking into the problems of larger structural anomalies, one can decipher the authoritarian creation of ‘degeneration’, forced upon the ‘retired’ elderly bodies across the legal frameworks of elderly care in India. The National Policy on Senior Citizens 2011 seeks to develop ‘formal and informal social support system, so that the capacity of the family to take care of senior citizens is strengthened and they continue to live in the family’ (Government of India, 2011, p. 4). While this policy facilitates favored support for the elderly suffering from chronic ailments and economic hardships, it also universalises senior citizens as ‘decaying dependents’ in need of everlasting surveillance.

An intervention by the Government of India – Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in 2021 has been turned on in the form of SACRED (Senior Able Citizen for Re-employment in Dignity), which would enable senior citizens to exercise a choice for work participation. But, such intervention might equally speak a story of uncertainty and enigmatic functions since the progress reports have been negligibly drawn in the public forum. The micro-social experiences and shapes of ‘ageism’ might percolate across the stratum of caste, class, gender and ethnicity while reframing the hierarchical spaces of access and typification of work opportunities. For instance, the elderly might be offered a job not at par with his or her educational qualification or might be in a job position demeaning to that of other younger co-workers.

Age is more than a number

The typification of ageing is reconstructed through the interactive practices of objective structures such as bureaucratic monoliths defining work through ‘physical and mental labour’ as well as the subjective ‘embodied’ interpretations of work ordering ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu, 1977); across group and physical identity. The contemporaneous climate synchronises age as a structure, shaping the discourses of consumer culture and the globalised regimes of neo-liberal values such as choices, autonomy and citizenship. The fact that elderly today participate in social media does not vacate or debilitate the backlogs of ageing and its social realisation. While demanding a dialectical analysis, the elderly participation is appropriated more over platforms of leisure (Facebook) than that of their work. Their roles as purveyors of the ‘resting’ generation seem more hyper-visualised and fraught with sanctity. This too lies within a dichotomous articulation of the divine imagery of the elderly for seva and their exclusion on calls of production and consumption. In popular deliberations we often cling to the clichéd stock – ‘age is just a number’. But, swirling my critical visions around empirical observations, I realised that ‘age is a rather more than a number’, a ‘number’ which presents opportunities as well as challenges to constrict one within the disparate categories of action, (in)action, vocation, acting and sensitising. This ‘number’ also twirls my thought process towards the deterministic and imposed ‘declination’ of body beauty with ageing, which contests and converges across the dialectical tensions between cognitive and cultural systems. These tensions are in turn developed through the consciousness of mutual orientation and social interactions of the elderly with other members from similar class/caste locations and ‘reflexivity’ of determining their behavior from the lens of the ‘other’. For instance, the internalisation of ageism remains a movable argument. In here, B.N. Chatterjee’s traces his lived experiences within a residential apartment and the larger peer network, which enables him to reproduce his versions of the ‘social complex’ and the ‘society’. Society is not a materialistic conception of linear evolution. It is a process of forces and events, yet not abstract as suggested by the traditional social thinkers. It is within this dynamicity that society presents, Chatterjee internalises non-dynamicity and contested perceptions of ageing, which equalises destabilising competence apart from physiological losses. He corroborates in Bangla, ‘Amar nijeke ochol mone hoe jokhn tech-savy chele-meyeder dekhi. Ami chesta kori kintu mone hoi na ekhane amar boisher jagah acche’ (I feel intimidated when I see tech-savy generations. I try but I think I am not suitable here in terms of my age).

The Reach of Ageing

Negotiating my location as a youth participating in the processes of globalisation which transforms my sense of self primarily through material aspirations, where do we see the reach of age and the non-equilibrium of inclusivity? Why ageing is universal, yet out of the ordinary? How misinformed and misconstrued are we as a generation? Does a similar form of spin rotate as we reach through the ageing life stage? These questions armor its fecundity through the era of hyper-visualization, fashion, trends, and so ‘youth’! Youthful representations and ‘fair and lovely’ beauty standards are often stimulated as flag bearers of consumer citizenship while being reproduced as icons of Indian modernist values.

Today, the dualisms of modernisation and post-modernisation are enchanted with ‘digitalization’ as well as algorithmic plays where the elderly are often rendered fastened even if they invest their effort to move up the ladder of virtual space. Through a reflective analysis on the conundrum of intersectional leanings, the elderly often encounter double disadvantages with reference to their accessibility over virtual spaces. While debates and relevance on the functionalities of digital−virtual platforms rise among the elderly belonging to the upper-income groups, the poor elderly invariably fails to be at the ladder, let alone climbing it. Such climbing also lies across a distant shore of ageing which is recreated through the ‘antiphony of language and silence’ (Das, 1997, p. 68); as Veena Das would have envisioned it. This antigenic composition of the ‘social’ order and its inscription over the ageing individuals also cracks open several possibilities of rethinking about the transience of social status that reveals sources of power and self-critical knowledge at the same time.


Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press.

Das, V. (1997). Language and Body: Transactions in the Construction of Pain. In Arthur Kleinman, Veena Das and Margaret Lock (Eds.), Social Suffering (pp.48-67). California: University of California Press.

Government of India. (2011). National Policy for Senior Citizens March 2011.

Ahana Choudhury: I am a Research Scholar in the Department of Sociology, Tezpur University, Assam, India. My research interest revolves around care practices, ageing, internal/international migration and mobility as well as gender issues. Having a background in sociology, I worked as a Youth and Democracy fellow in the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), New Delhi and interned for several state forums such as the Delhi Commission for Women, New Delhi. Email: [email protected]

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