Any change in societal attitudes is a slow affair. Especially in a society as traditional as Hungary. However, there are signs of positive change. Somewhat belatedly I saw this morning a discussion on "Life over Fifty," a program aired about two weeks ago on ATV. The participants discussed changing attitudes toward aging and older people in general.
One ought to know that in Hungary there is, to my mind, an unhealthy attitude concerning "the golden years." For instance, people at a relatively early age, let’s say in their mid-fifties, describe themselves as old. Why is this the case? First, life expectancy in Hungary is rather low: a good six or seven years shorter than in Western Europe. Second, the health of older Hungarians is not the best, to put it mildly. How much of this is due to lifestyle and how much to a less than adequate health care system is not quite clear. Third, the average age of retirement is about fifty-five years, which often marks the beginning of a fairly empty existence.
However, there are hopeful signs. In the last ten years the life expectancy of Hungarians has increased by four years–presumably the result of better drugs, better medical equipment, and the slow spread of knowledge about the basic facts of healthful living. More and more people realize that weight matters and that there is a connection between certain diseases and the lack of exercise. (Although I read not long ago that most people use their car for a half a kilometer trip!) Sooner or later Hungary will catch up with the rest of Europe, and those fifty-five-year-olds who describe themselves as old will live for another thirty years. What will they call themselves then? Methuselahs?
The participants in the discussion were a pollster specializing in market research, an employee of UPC (the cable company and internet provider) in charge of advertising, a TV personality interested in the status of women, especially older women, and a man who is organizing courses for older people on using the internet. All of these people were upbeat. They claimed that, after all, there is a growing older population who can afford the better things in life and who take advantage of such opportunities as organized foreign travel. Older people are more concerned with quality whether it is in clothing, TV sets, or food. Since there are more TV sets in Hungarian homes and an increasing selection of channels, watching television is not a group pastime anymore. The youngsters can watch an action series while the oldsters watch a classic movie. Accordingly, advertisers are able to target groups with a reasonable degree of accuracy.
The Hungarian population as a whole is becoming more demanding. Fifteen years ago people bought the cheapest, no-frills cars. Today they demand more and obviously they feel that they can afford it. All this was music to my ears since we hear only about the alleged economic crisis.
So, after all, Hungary is moving closer to Western European standards, but of course people are impatient. Also many people simply don’t see the tremendous improvements that have been made. Today’s Hungarians take it for granted that there is a huge array of goods from which they can choose and that, thanks to "information" on television, radio, and in newspapers, they can make more or less intelligent choices. One of the participants mentioned that in the early 80s he managed to get to Paris and went to buy something. He was confronted with so many choices and had no idea of the pros and cons of each brand that he left the store empty-handed. He was simply overwhelmed. A friend of mine had a similar experience in 1979 when she spent half a year in the United States on a scholarship. She told me that she felt almost sick when she first went into an American supermarket. How could she choose between fifty different unfamiliar brands? Hungarians today don’t have this problem. When they look back on the Kádár regime with nostalgia I assume they forget about things like not being able to get a telephone line, waiting for years for a car, or an ordinary television set that cost a whole year’s salary. Should I continue?
By the way, I heard that the consumer confidence index (Ecostat) improved dramatically in the last few months. It is still not quite up to the 2004 level but almost! If only the politicians would get their senses back, things would continue to improve, I’m sure.