Age Time Bomb

In numerous developed countries, particularly places like Italy and Japan, an ageing demographic is becoming problematic. The recent financial crisis was a contributing factor to short term economic contraction, but gone are the days of long-term rapid growth for these nations, as the population shrinks and the workforce ages.

It may be somewhat shocking to our colleagues in the developed world, but farm employers are responsible for housing their employees and immediate families from birth to death. No other sector in South Africa works in this way, and probably few economic sectors anywhere in the world. Whatever the argument may be for and against, this is the status quo that has been entrenched in our labour legislation and secure of tenure.

This creates a plural problem; agriculture is heavily burdened by additional responsibility and financial burden, as rural employees are burdened by their work and domicile being inextricably linked. It creates a level of insecurity amongst both parties: employer and employee. As aforementioned, it is the standard arrangement from the distant past. Creating more independence will be difficult and may take a generation or two. As for now, farm-owner and farmer-worker remain linked by land, law and legacy.

One issue threatens employer and employee: an ageing workforce. Just as the introductory analogy places strain on developed nations, the swelling population of rural retirees is causing logistical stress and infrastructural shortages. By law, retirees must be accommodated on the farms where previously employed; but there are just so many homes.

When a family home is occupied by an unproductive retiree, it means that a productive young family cannot be accommodated and more jobs cannot be created. This is a cruel truism, not to insinuate our elderly do not require our care and affection, but rather to find a workable solution that sees the elderly, the productive youthful and agri-business owner benefit. This too, is important for a country with chronic unemployment and farms that are generally understaffed and financially overburdened.

Looking for a holistic solution, we would like to embark on the same mutually beneficial journey we have taken with Lorraine Primary School, our early-childhood development programme and the FairExchange Healthcare Post. The long-term solution is not working farm-by-farm, but by looking after the needs of the aged as an entire Fairhills community. The retirees have similar needs and similar issues, these might include lack-of-mobility, need for additional healthcare, easily managed and maintained housing etc.

The darker side lurks beneath; where as any young family could become aggrieved by elderly parents resisting their moving into the limelight, so a similar specter can lurk in farming communities. This happens when retirees become belligerent when asked to move to smaller staff-homes for a couple, allowing working families with children to move into the larger family staff-homes. This downsizing with age is a natural progression, but this logic is often conflated with being relegated. This could be remedied if the elderly have a life-path that provides late-in-life dignity and services, but allows farms to get on with what they’re supposed to do, produce. Effective production can only occur if the infrastructure is used at optimum and the workforce is productive.

We need to work steadily towards a revolutionary retirement policy and plan for the Fairhills community. As we have pioneered healthcare and education through our stellar Fairtrade project, so we can pioneer a new vision for the rural aged; one of dignity, care and mutual benefit, thereby giving the old, young and business peace-of-mind.

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