Speech delivered by Secretary-General Kofi Annan

Speech delivered by Secretary-General Kofi Annan

A 'Society for All Ages' honours traditional leadership role of elders, Secretary-General says, opening International Year of Older Persons

As Life Becomes More a Marathon than a Short Sprint, Longevity Allows Time for Reflecting on Life's Meaning




1 October 1998

The following is the text of a statement by Secretary-General Kofi Annan made at the ceremony today launching the International Year of Older Persons (1999):

It gives me great pleasure on this International Day of Older Persons to join you in celebrating the launch of the International Year of Older Persons (1999). I am especially pleased to know that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are here in full strength alongside governments. We see again the unique ability of the United Nations to promote partnerships of the "like-minded", and to serve as a place where "we, the peoples" can come together to address key global issues.

We live in an age to which many labels have been attached: it is the post-cold war age; the post-industrial age; the age of the Internet; and the age of globalization. Let me add one more today, for our time is also, undeniably, the age of longevity.

In the course of considering my remarks here today, I learned of some remarkable facts. In the second half of the twentieth century, 20 years have been added to the average life-span. Within 30 years, a third of the population in the more developed countries will be over age 60. The world, as a whole, will reach that proportion by 2150. And the older population itself is ageing. Today, about 10 per cent of the population over age 60 is already age 80 or older; this will rise to 25 per cent before the year 2050.

These and other ageing trends are changing family structures. The traditional pyramid in which there are many youth and few elders is giving way to the opposite: an inverse pyramid of one child; two parents; four grandparents; and several great-grandparents.

There is also a significant gender dimension to this portrait of humanity's "coming of age". Women nearly everywhere are living longer than men. Women are more likely than men to be poor in old age. They face a higher risk of chronic illness and disability, discrimination and marginalization. Women are also more likely to be care-givers. They sometimes face a triple burden: child care; elder care; and, of course, seeing to their own well-being. But these contributions -- to their families, communities and the economy -- are often overlooked. In short, we are in the midst of a silent revolution. It is a revolution that extends well beyond demographics, with major economic, social, cultural, psychological and spiritual implications. It is a revolution that hits developing nations harder than others. Not just because the majority of older persons live in developing countries, but because the tempo of ageing there is already -- and will continue to be -- far more rapid. Developed countries have been dealing with the "graying" of their societies for some time now, with mixed success. Developing countries, as they do when faced with many other global challenges, will find their situation much more acute.

It is fitting, then, that the last year of this millennium has been designated as the International Year of Older Persons. The Year is guided by the Vienna International Plan of Action on Ageing, adopted in 1982, and by the United Nations Principles for Older Persons, promulgated in 1991. Promotion of the principles is our overall objective, and we will do so under the Year's theme, "towards a society for all ages". What exactly do we mean by this?

A society for all ages is one that does not caricature older persons as patients and pensioners. Instead, it sees them as both agents and beneficiaries of development. It honours traditional elders in their leadership and consultative roles in communities throughout the world. And it seeks a balance between supporting dependency and investing in lifelong development.

A society for all ages is multigenerational. It is not fragmented, with youths, adults and older persons going their separate ways. Rather, it is age-inclusive, with different generations recognizing -- and acting upon -- their commonality of interest. And a society for all ages is committed to creating an enabling environment for healthy life-styles as people age. This means there are special needs in terms of transportation, housing and communications. Public health and social services are another consideration. Countries searching for cost-saving public-finance measures might want to think again about cutbacks in these areas, which are particularly harsh on older persons, especially older women.

Just as the potential of youth can be developed only in the absence of poverty, so too with ageing. Longevity requires wise investments in the earlier phases of life: in youth and childhood, when the imprints and tools of both self-reliance and interdependence are acquired; and in adulthood, when stores of capital are built up -- not only economic capital, but the human capital of skills and self-knowledge, and the social capital of trust and collaboration.

Indeed, mid-life should be seen more and more as a prelude to an active old age. This means we should invest in mid-life as deliberately as we invest in youth. Pensions are just one form of investment. But even here, as we have seen in developed countries, such systems are increasingly in crisis. Still, developed countries have been able to mature gradually. Developing countries face the challenges of development and of aging populations simultaneously.

The International Year of Older Persons gives us an opportunity to move in this enlightened direction. I would like to salute the spirit of partnership in evidence here today among the intergovernmental consultative group, NGOs and the United Nations Secretariat. And I would like to take this occasion to join in spirit with others now preparing their launch of the International Year, particularly the various national committees around the world that are embarking on a celebration of their elders and an exploration of the meaning of a society for all ages within their national contexts.

Having turned 60 myself less than six months ago, I am now counted among the statistics I cited earlier. I am an older person.

As the years accumulate, time seems to pass ever more quickly. But in fact, and without for a moment forgetting the tragic exceptions generated by violence, disease and poverty, for most people around the world, lives are lengthening. Life is becoming less like a short sprint and more like a marathon. Marathon runners will tell you that completing such a race depends largely on maintaining a healthy life-style, training and willpower. But they will also confess that there is an intangible element to this often lonely pursuit: that of being in a community of fellow-runners, which can make the difference between fading and finishing. Longevity requires of us the same mixture of practicality and persistence, and the same sense of common purpose.

Longevity also allows more time for reflecting on the meaning of life in these times of rapid change. How often we see experiences and knowledge distilled in later life into deeper understanding and wider tolerance. I am thinking of former antagonists who overcome decades of conflict; of bigots who renounce their earlier, more hateful selves; of new achievements in philosophy and literature.

I have seen this happen in the course of my work at the United Nations. I have seen the great potential of an age of ageing. In that spirit, it is my pleasure to announce today, on the International Day of Older Persons, that the International Year of Older Persons has now begun.