The other day, I saw on television a middle-aged Syrian woman who had just lost her family to a terrorist attack. She was crying hysterically. “And now ...” she managed to exclaim, “Who’s going to take care of me in my old age!”
For this woman, like many Middle Eastern women, the family was her only social safety net, and that net suddenly vanished. It makes one think how different is Western or Northern Europe in this respect and how, the safety net of the traditional family, was replaced, minus love and affection, by an elaborate and reliable system of old-age pension. Lebanon, as usual, is a peculiar case: The traditional family, as a social safety net, is rapidly fading away and is being replaced, if only partially, by remittances, while the government is debating, ad infinitum, the establishment of a comprehensive system of old-age pension.
Yet, the Lebanese population has been aging for some time, at least since the 1970s, as couples began to produce fewer children, and people continued to live progressively longer. United Nations data show that the average age of a resident Lebanese has risen from less than 19 years in 1970 to 29 years at present. The population aged 65 years and over (the “old” by definition), represents the fastest growing age group in the population and will be so for a long time to come. While in 1970, there were eight times more children under 15 years of age than old people, it is expected that, by 2040, the number of older people will surpass that of children, and the gap between the two groups will continue to widen thereafter. Most important, at least for planning an old age pension scheme, the growth in the numbers of old resident Lebanese is expected to accelerate considerably after the end of this decade. Thus, while the number of the elderly grew annually by 3.5 percent between 2010 and 2020, it is expected to grow by 8.5 percent annually during the 20 years succeeding 2020.
A number of factors are changing the traditional family. One of these is emigration. Traditionally, emigration affected mostly males of marriageable ages, leaving a gap between the sexes at these ages. A demographic measure of this gap takes into account the typical difference in age between men and women at first marriage in computing what demographers call the “availability of mate ratio,” which presumable measures the availability of marriageable males to females. In Lebanon this translates into a ratio of around eight males to 10 females which, added to other economic and social considerations, has resulted in a high-celibacy rates among Lebanese women. At present, it is estimated that more than 20 percent of women aged 45-49 years are never married, as against 10 percent of men. What has eased this situation lately, is the fact that single Lebanese women have, in the past couple of decades, begun themselves to emigrate, in search of work abroad, in the Gulf and other destinations.
Another factor affecting the traditional Lebanese family is the increasing rate of divorce. Since 1970, the percent of divorced persons among the population 15 years and over has risen considerably for both sexes. Yet, there are at present approximately twice as many divorced women than divorced men. The reason is that divorced men generally remarry much more often than divorced women.
Widowhood remained fairly stable at about 6 percent of the population for 15 years and over since 1970. So did the gap between male and female rates. There are approximately five times more widows than widowers in Lebanon. This ratio is even higher in most other Arab countries. One reason is that women live two to three years longer than men, but the main reason, here again, is that widowed men remarry much more often than widowed women.
Finally, the intensive emigration of the young has also had a major effect on the traditional family. A large number of older couples live alone because their children have migrated. Some of those who are in financial need do receive material support from their children or other relatives abroad in the form of remittances. Lebanon received last year some $8 billion from Lebanese working abroad. This of course helps since it goes in large part to those left behind who are generally with modest means. But that does not change the fact that it is an additional factor in changing the role of the family from safety net to economic burden.
These factors have not only shrunk the average size of household, (from 5.4 in 1970 to less than four at present), they have, more importantly, resulted in an ever-increasing proportion of one and two persons households, which constitutes at present as much as a quarter of the total. These households are typically composed of older couples whose children are living abroad, or of never-marrieds, divorced or widowed persons, mostly women. A 2009 survey by the Central Administration of Statistics showed, for example, that the heads of single person households were 59 percent women.
The decline in fertility, intensive emigration of the young and the aging of the Lebanese population, which has begun in earnest, are changing the structure of demand for services in the country. One of the more important of these changes is that arising from the oncoming rapid increase in the older age group, accompanied by a diminishing capacity of the family to contain it. This is creating, among other things, a rapidly increasing need for old-people’s homes, which already are overcrowded, and where the waiting period for admission sometimes exceeds the expectation of life of the elderly requesting entry; and this in spite of the mushrooming of unsupervised and inadequate institutions trying to fill the gap.
This situation urgently requires a comprehensive policy for the aged, based on a serious demographic and actuarial study that takes into account the rapidly increasing future growth of demand. Spontaneous financial measures by the government, irrespective of the goodwill behind them, are bound to face bankruptcy before long because of the coming rapid acceleration in the growth of the elderly group in Lebanese society.
Riad Tabbarah is the author of the book “Lebanon: Development and Human Problems by the Numbers,” (in Arabic) from which much of the information for this article is taken and documented.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 12, 2018, on page 7.