Commission looks at bright side of demographic change

Ageing populations and low birthrates should be seen as a challenge and an opportunity instead of a threat, according to a two-day forum on demographic change. 

With a Communication published on 12 October 2006 and the first in a bi-annual series of Open Fora on demography, held on 30-31 October, the Commission attempts to focus on possibly positive aspects of demographic changes and on experiences of successful policy responses to demographic challenges. 

In the Communication, the Commission defined five key areas for EU action: 

  • Support for demographic renewal by helping people balance work, family and private life;
  • improving work opportunities for older people;
  • increasing productivity and competitiveness by better involving both older and younger employees;
  • harnessing the positive impact of migration by better integrating migrants into the labour market, and;
  • ensuring sustainable public finances to help guarantee social protection in the long-term. 

 

At the forum, Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities Commissioner Vladimír Špidla pointed out that African leaders who are facing the opposite problems are envious of Europe's demographic situation. He said that, in particular with respect to Europe's high and steadily growing life expectancy, the situation reflected medical progress made in Europe in past decades. Špidla said that demographic change was an opportunity just as much as it was a challenge, adding that in order to reap possible benefits, societal changes must take place within the next ten years. 

The Finnish Minister for Social Affairs, Tuula Haatainen, picked up Špidla's argument, arguing that the ageing population was a proof that the European social model works. She pointed, however, to the need for reform, pointing out workplace flexicurity as the most promising approach for meeting the key challenges. Haatainen reminded member states of their pledge, under the Barcelona strategy, to provide childcare for one third of children aged less than three years and for 90% of children aged three to six years. 

Ursula von der Leyen, the German minister for families, senior citizens, women and youth and herself a mother of seven, agreed that being able to reconcile family life and work were crucial for bringing Europe's birth rates up. She saw particular problems for young women still doing their studies and presented a number of projects that her country's government has launched, such as parental benefits of up to 65% of the last net income, establishing a network of family-friendly enterprises, and so-called multi-generation houses, as a modernised form of the extended family. Von der Leyen also announced a "European Alliance for Families" to be established under the German Presidency during the first half of 2007. 

Population trends in Europe are predicted to lead to:

  • A rise in life expectancy, from 80 years for women in the EU-25 in 2005, to 86 years in 2050;
  • the share of persons aged 60 years and older raising to 36% in 2050, up from 22% in 2005. During the same period, the share of people aged 80 years and more is predicted to almost triple from 4% to 11%, and;
  • 53 people aged more than 65 years per every 100 aged 15 to 64; up from 25 persons in 2005. 

For Europe's labour markets, social security, retirement, health and education systems, these figures may appear gloomy. However, the Commission has addressed the issues in a Green Paper consultation in 2005. 

  • Friends of Europe organises a conference on Europe's demographic challenge on 23 November 2006

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