What will happen and how can we already see it

By Daria Aron

Walking the streets of Bucharest last summer, I couldn’t help but notice one thing – everyone was old. I don’t mean elderly with canes and walkers, but significantly older than me. 40 or older. Obviously, there were other ‘young’ people but not enough to change my impression. 

Europe’s ageing population is not a new concept, and it’s been deeply and thoroughly studied. However, I think there’s always a point where we as students of political scientists go from only knowing about certain societal trends to fully seeing them in day-to-day life, and this was it for me.  

There are the statistics, of course, with Eurostat projecting an increase in the median age to increase by 4,5 years in the next three decades, with some countries even seeing an 8-year increase. Changes in social welfare systems are predicted, and retirement changes are already being increased and seen as inevitable and non-negotiable, much to the population’s chagrin. With birth rates decreasing and mass migration still taking place, will this become the issue in Europe this century?

How has Europe gotten here?

The answer to this question is simple. Post World War II, there was a change in attitudes, from survivalism and materialist values to self-expression and post-materialistic values. This change is often named the Silent Revolution, a term coined by political scientist Ronald Inglehart. Dr Inglehart wrote extensively on this topic and he argued that in a world of insecurity, plagued by wars and societal changes, individuals will be more concerned with their quality of life. As a result, people began exploring themselves and the world instead of pursuing the traditional way of life. 

Everything is done later and is more calculated. The marriage age for women was 24-26 across the continent in 1950. In 2010, it was said to have increased to 28-32. Since then one could have an educated prediction and say it has increased further. The mother’s age at which a first child is born has also increased, with women choosing and being able to pursue higher education, and wanting to establish a career before starting a family, or alternatively, not wanting to start a family at all. As a result, the overall European fertility rate has decreased from 2.7 in 1950 to 1.49 in 2022. For context, the fertility rate entails how many children are born to one woman, and the rate which sustains a population is 2. So what does a fertility rate of 1.49 mean for Europe?  

But first, why is the decrease not as accentuated as we might expect it to be? Improved healthcare, a higher standard of life, and better diets have led to an increase in life expectancy. Additionally, in a study Dr Arun Balachandran and his contributors find that since women, and society in general are prioritising getting an education before starting a family, the presence of higher education has a significant correlation to living until an older age. Men are now living to an average of 77.5 years old and women to 83.2 years old. As a result, the proportion of young working people to retired people is decreasing increasingly putting stress on pensions and social welfare. This is exacerbated by a lack of social policy regarding retired people, as while they could remain productive and contribute in some way, by volunteering or such activities, most are banished away to live the rest of their lives alone, without any solid plan. 

Image by Mayugo from Wikimedia

On top of all of this, the creation of the European Union and the Schengen area has allowed and encouraged the emigration of people to other countries considered more ‘well-off’. As a result, South-Eastern, Central and Southern Europe have experienced a massive loss of their population. Due to this, countries which experience emigration the most would need an even higher fertility rate just to keep up. The Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital from the University of Vienna proposed that there would need to be 3 children born to a woman in order for populations to remain the same at a time of mass ongoing emigration, something which is quite improbable to happen.

With more younger people emigrating and there being an overall decreased fertility rate across the continent, these two factors have been attributed to a worsening of the population ratio and the overall ageing population of Europe.  

Predictions and Discussions: What Will Europe Do?

The distribution of seniors in Europe is not particularly equal. Of course, this is a continent-wide phenomenon but some countries like Italy has a 36.5% share of the population over the age of 55, are worse off than others like Ireland which only has a share of 25% of people over 55, according to EU statistics

Regardless, there is currently a debate over who and how the policy will be made and implemented. Considering this is seen throughout Europe, some proponents think the European Union should be initiating this policy. Critics argue that since the EU exacerbated this issue, allowing the movement of people from one country to another and making some areas worse off, it should be very much in the hands of the member states. While these two sides argue, however, the threat of pension ages rising and a lack of money for pensions looms over the current generations. 

So, what will Europe do?

In the countries in which this issue is accentuated by emigration, policymakers should focus on understanding the reasons why people leave and how they could attract immigration. In this policymaking, they should also not forget about the vast urban-rural cleavage seen across the continent, with rural areas receiving a lot fewer funds and attention than the urban cities causing a massive inflow to urban areas, and worsening emigration. Policies made should have a focus on rural development to prevent the desertation of small towns, as well as creating cohesion and locally tailored policies which support the ageing population but also address the lack of opportunities and marginalised groups. Population Europe recommends that policies should also take into consideration the post-pandemic change in work and through digitalisation, attract more people into their rural areas. 

Policies, however, do not have to be drastic, at least according to the main findings from the Conference on the Causes and Consequences of Depopulation organised by the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital. During the conference, it was hypothesised that based on historical cross-country data, labour markets adjust to population declines just as they would adjust to population growth, and participation rates in labour grow naturally, and a positive outcome is predicted. So basically, nothing needs to be done. 

Additionally, improvements in productivity technologies which alleviate the negative effects of labour would permit individuals to work longer than before and alleviate the burden of dementia as well which is linked to long retirements.  

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development proposes attenuating the situation by creating more inclusive labour policies. Society should not continue organising itself by the traditional ‘education to working to retirement’ life stages anymore, and ‘active ageing’ needs to be embraced as individuals remain active for longer in the work field and society. Long-term health care is also a sector worth focusing on. Different studies in different countries show that when there is a focus on people’s capabilities and experiences, better and more personalised care is provided, which in turn on the carer’s side is easier to do. Even here in the Netherlands, the Buurtzorg model which provides care to the elderly with community nurses reduced its amount of administration work, and nurses are able to spend more time on providing actual care. This model not only increased efficiency but also saved money. This money could be reinvested in increasing the wages of this staff and bettering their work conditions, attracting more people to work in this sector.  

Lastly, ageist attitudes need to disappear. As the Balachandran study found, educated people tend to live longer. So why are we not listening to their decades of experience? Of course, there does need to be idea turnover, however, the current outlook on the elderly deters seniors from taking an active role in society and using their expertise. Additionally, there needs to be a change in how we measure the old-age dependency ratio which is often used to analyse an ageing population, as it completely ignores seniors who despite being retired, they are still active by either volunteering, having some sort of economic activity or caring for family members, like many grandparents take care of their grandchildren. 

More than a trend

Coming back to studying trends. Writing this article, I had my political scientist cap on while researching and analysing data I could find. During these moments I felt as if I removed myself from the topic and its severity. But why am I writing this article? When I made my observations in the summer they did not lead me to shrug my shoulders and move on. No, they made me have a crisis about where the world was going to go. 

Being from a region which is being affected heavily by this issue, I can see it everywhere. It is not uncommon for seniors to be shut in their homes, rarely leaving as there haven’t been social programmes made for them yet. It is also not uncommon for people to have their families spread out over several other countries as they moved abroad trying to find a life elsewhere. A low birth rate is also not atypical, and its resolve seems impossible. I’ve mentioned the reasons earlier, but there is something else – the feeling of hopelessness. People are already concerned for their own livelihoods due to policies which they see have failed them – they do not want to extend these same worries to a child. As a result, the situation spirals. 

This is not just an economic issue. It is a personal issue. There needs to be something changed or a reform implemented just so we do not see our families get relegated from society once they reach a certain age and so that we are not stressing our entire working lives as to what will happen once we retire. As we’ve been told, the fact that countries have an ageing population problem is important, but we should not see the ageing population itself as the problem. Hopefully, the change that comes will reflect that.  

Image by Fede-5-19 from Wikimedia