In much of the Third World social security systems are not a priority; they are poorly developed and badly funded and children provide a vital social and economic safety net for their retired parents and grandparents. As in other societies of equal status, in Africa children are a prized asset from when they are young helping out in the fields to when they are adults taking care of their elderly parents.
For the majority of young people providing for one’s parents is a source of great satisfaction and many children would look after their parents out of love. However, in many cases it is done out of societal pressure that has made it an expectation that they provide the socioeconomic security for their parents irrespective of individual circumstances.
The question we ask is: ‘Should offspring be obligated to provide social security for their parents at old age?’ This is an essential question in that most states hide behind culture and norms and neglect their social security obligation to the elderly and lame population presuming young people will pick up the tab.
We emphasise herein that it is an admirable act of affection for children to care for their parents especially if they do it of their own volition. However, there are societies who oblige children to take up family responsibilities such as paying school fees for their younger siblings on top of financially supporting the whole family. The responsibilities do not stop even when the child, especially males, gets married and starts his own family.
It would appear some parents expect children to payback for being born, raised and educated. It has to be said children seem to be paying back more in return and over a longer period than the parents’ contribution to the child’s success. In any case why should children repay their parents for raising them? Is it not a parent’s responsibility to raise their children?
One wonders if this tradition will stand the current socioeconomic changes within sub-Saharan Africa. African economies have not grown significantly in the last decade, if anything they have shown signs of stagnation and contraction in most cases. Of concern has been the increase in hunger across the continent and increased food imports when foreign currency reserves have been dwindling.
Declining food output in rural areas coupled with a general increase in population has seen an increase in urbanization as young people compete for jobs in a shrinking employment market.
Of even greater concern is the steady departure from the extended family set up to a nuclear family by the younger generation of parents living in urban centres. These parents are less than willing to return to their traditional rural homes and are increasingly isolating themselves from their rural folk as well as contributing relatively less in economic terms towards their parents’ livelihoods.
It should be noted that in most cases the economic realities of living in cities: high food prices and high energy bills make it near impossible for the lowly paid working class population in cities to assist their relatives in rural areas. There is therefore a tendency, out of necessity, by some city dwellers to extract more than they give back to their rural folk.
On the basis of the economic situation alone, it is becoming increasingly unreasonable for any parent to oblige their child or society to obligate them to economically provide for their parents in old age.
Another reality of city living in the Third World is the shortage of housing. The majority of young adults live in rented accommodation that is very limited in space yet expensive to maintain. Space restrictions make it quite difficult for elderly parents to join their children in cities if they require being looked after. On the other hand, financial constraints disable children from caring for their parents while they are located in rural areas.
If children are in a position to care for their parents that should be lauded but they should never be made to feel compelled to provide the social and economic security. Society has to acknowledge current socioeconomic changes; predict and prepare for the future needs of the elderly members. It would appear that if current trends of migrant labour both within and beyond national borders continued, the extended family structure and its current social security character will decline to levels where it would possibly cease to provide a reasonable safety net for elderly people.