The ageing demographic: Nothing to fear but fear itself

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

This article is part of our special report Jobs and Growth.

Sweden's prime minister suggested recently that in future citizens might have to work until 75 before receiving pensions. Fears are widespread about the knock-on effects of the sharply ageing demographic in Europe. Leading demographer Andreas Edel argues that Europeans need to look on the bright side of a longer life.

Dr Andreas Edel is executive secretary of Population Europe, a network of leading demographic research centres.

"In 2007 a fictional television documentary drew a horror scenario of an ageing society – including the collapse of the welfare state, a new poverty among the elderly, strong inequalities, and social conflicts amongst older people. Even if such visions are as unlikely to occur as the catastrophe portrayed in Roland Emmerich’s film 2012, the audience leaves the room with the feeling that their future lives might not be as comfortable as they assumed before.

But let’s start with the good news: research has provided evidence that life expectancy is continuously rising, currently about 2.5 years per decade. The majority of newborn babies today have a good chance of becoming as old as Methuselah. The number of people aged 100 years or more has been increasing since the last quarter of the 20th century, and it continues to do so. And many of them stay healthy longer: the health status of older people today is better than what was reported for the elderly of the same age during the 1970s. Or in other words, to be 70 often feels as if you were in your early 60s in the generation before. It is not unusual today that, for example, musicians and actors appear in public who began their careers in the late 1960s, and one can often hardly tell by their performances that they have spent nearly five decades on stage.

Currently there is an intensive debate in Europe: if most of us might have a few more decades to live, shouldn’t we stay active and productive longer? If the welfare state and the pension systems in most European countries are running into a misbalance between contributors and consumers, shouldn’t at least the baby-boomer generation work longer? When state subsidies are increasingly less available, can intergenerational solidarity, civil society engagement, and volunteering play a more prominent role in covering the greater need of care for aged and disabled people? And what is the scope of flexibility we gain by using new technologies to help older people stay longer in the workforce and at home?

There is also room for more fundamental considerations: as the renowned demographer and winner of the European Science Foundation’s Latsis prize in 2011, James W. Vaupel, pointed out, the last century was dominated by the distribution of wealth while this century might be more determined by the distribution of work. Demographic models show that there might be room for more flexibility with regard to our working lives. Instead of running through a period of education, followed by a period of participation in the workforce, and then a period of pension age, work could be better distributed along the (longer) lifetime. More flexibility in organising the workforce might create more opportunities for life-long learning, age-adapted career paths, or part-time work in periods when we would prefer to raise our children or care for our parents. At the end of the day, people might also stay physically and mentally healthy longer and be happier if they remain active longer and are able to contribute to society more sustainably.

However, one has to consider that a longer working lifetime is always associated with the question of whether it is feasible for the employee, as well as for the employer. As much as most of us might have to adapt ourselves to the idea of working longer, our workplaces also have to be adapted to an ageing workforce. For not all jobs is this a realistic option, for example where physical strength or speedy decision-making is key to being productive. But isn’t it worth considering new ways to retrain and integrate the elderly for other jobs? And don’t we need a new culture of employment, where it is not a disadvantage to be older than 50 or even 60 when searching for a new job in the labour market? Whether one agrees with the most recent proposal of the Swedish prime minister to increase the age of retirement to 75 or not – with a shrinking population in some European states we will not be able to keep the same level of productivity and wealth if we do it without the human capital of older, experienced workers.

2012 is the European Year of Active Ageing and Intergenerational Solidarity. It is most definitely not the year in which we need a new Noah’s ark, as the movie “2012” suggested, at least when it comes to demographic waves. Even if these waves are already on the rise, we have the ability to create an environment in which they cannot do much harm. Just the opposite, they can be used for a new societal dynamic and innovations in the labour market. For that, evidence-driven dialogue between researchers, policymakers, stakeholders and the public will be key to discussing our answers to the challenges of ageing societies in Europe."

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