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Just how many older workers are there? And do they want to work more?

| Text: Björn Lindahl

When the EU made 2012 the year for active ageing and solidarity between generations, Eurostat was tasked with producing relevant statistics. “It could become commonplace for people to move into retirement while still having one or both of their parents alive”, is one of the thought-provoking conclusions.

Eurostat figures show there were slightly more than 87 million persons aged 65 and over on 1 January 2010 in the EU’s 27 member states, some 17.4 percent of the total population. 25 years earlier, on 1 January 1985, the same countries had 59 million persons aged 65 and over, which made up 12.8 percent of the total population.

Statistics often talk about average life expectancy. We are proud that all the Nordic countries figure high in international statistics, with 78.6 years for men and 83.3 years for women in Sweden - the country with the highest number for both genders. But these figures don’t say much about society.

Iceland has lowest Nordic median age

By dividing the age distribution of the whole population into two equal parts - one old and one young - you get the median age; with half of persons below and half of persons above the median age. In 1960 the Nordic median age was lowest in Iceland (25.6 years) and highest in Sweden (36 years). The Swedish number was also Europe’s highest. 

Today Germany has Europe’s highest median age at 44.2 years, while the Nordic countries’ figure is between 34 and 42 years. Iceland still has the lowest number while Finland has the highest.

Compared to China the difference is major. In the 27 EU countries with a total population of half a billion people, 23 million persons are over 80. In China, with 1.3 billion people, only 18 million are that old. In India, population 1.2 billion, there are even fewer - only eight million persons are over 80.

A common explanation for an ageing population is that the post-WWI baby boomers are about to retire.

“It is natural for many people to presume an ageing population comes from people living longer. Of course this is partly right, but the age of a country’s population depends at least as much on birth-rates. Today’s ageing population in Europe is to a large extent a result of low birth-rates, writes Thomas Lindh, researcher at the Institute for Future Studies in his report ‘Sweden in an ageing world’, which was commissioned by the Swedish Globalisation Council.

Continuing ageing population

The median age is expected to rise across the EU and stabilize no earlier than 2060, when it will have reached 47.6 years. Five percent of the total population will be over 80.

In order to avoid care for the elderly becoming too much of a burden, it will be important that those who are not the oldest can help looking after those who are really old. That is what the slogan active ageing means. The post-war baby boomers who are about to retire must somehow be persuaded to keep working and not take early retirement like earlier generations have done. 

‘Active ageing recognises that if people are to work for a longer period of time, then they will need to be in good physical and mental health, with access to more flexible working arrangements, healthy workplaces, lifelong learning and retirement schemes,’ writes Eurostat. 

It is not at all certain the solidarity between the generations which the EU desires will emerge voluntarily. And here the Nordic countries are not in the lead - on the contrary.

Five percent of Danes over 50 want to work for longer

If you ask over 50s how many hours a week they’re willing to work, 49.7 percent of Swedes say they want to reduce their working hours. 46.5 percent of Irish over 50s want to work less, while 45.7 percent of Danes say the same. The number for Finland is 31.5 percent while in Norway - despite major oil revenues - the number is 31.6 percent. (The Icelandic have not answered this question). 9 percent of Norwegian over-50s would consider working more. That is approximately the same figure as in Finland. 6.9 percent of Swedish over-50s want to work more while only 5 percent of Danes say the same.

In comparison, 16 percent of French and Dutch over 50s say they want to work for longer.

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