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Active old age and solidarity between generations
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Active old age and solidarity between generations

| Text: Berit Kvam

Never before has so many lived for so long and been so healthy into such old age. In a few years there will be far more centenarians and people who will live for 20 to 30 years past their retirement age. Is Europe ready?

“It’s a reason to celebrate but it also has its challenges," said Denmark’s Minister for Employment, Mette Fredriksen, during the launch of the ‘European year for active ageing and solidarity between generations 2012’. 

"In 2017 there will be fewer young people in working life than people who are outside of the labour market, and the number of over-65s is rising.”

She painted a true but for many worrying picture of Europe’s demographic development.

Denmark holds the EU presidency and staged its opening conference on the theme in Copenhagen in January with two EU commissioners and three ministers present. Since then the European year has been launched in several countries. 

In Copenhagen the ageing society was presented in terms of the impact it will have on health, welfare and work. Active ageing means different things, like the importance of physical activity for health and wellbeing in older age and new ways of helping those in need of care. If older people stay healthy and independent for longer, it will benefit the younger generations who must finance the welfare society. In a time of labour shortages this will also be important in terms of how much labour will be needed in the health and welfare sectors in future. The Minister for Employment also focused on the opportunities which arise from teams with workers of different ages.

Young and old together

“When older and younger people work together they complement each other. Young people have physical strength and older ones have experience which they can share with the young,” said Mette Frederiksen, and used the Danish construction firm ‘Enemærke og Petersen’ as an example of someone who, according to her:

“makes the most out of their employees of all ages.”

Mette Frederiksen pointed to politicians’ responsibilities to make it possible and attractive for older people to stay in work for a bit longer, and to make sure older people’s skills remain sought after. She also underlined the importance of making people look after their own health and be an active part of society.  

The Minister for Employment put special emphasis on the need to improve working environments in companies where the danger of burn-out is great. 

“The working environment must be adapted to make it possible for older workers to work for longer.

  “It would be a shame if we didn’t appreciate that seniors represent a resourceful group and that they have a lot of experience.”

She was also keen to debunk the myth that by securing that older people keep working you put obstacles in the way for younger workers.

Youth unemployment must come down

“Of course we need to put measures in place to combat youth unemployment. Young people need training and they need to enter the labour market. But this is not an either/or situation. We must keep hold of the older workers at the same time, because in not too long we’ll need more people in the labour market because of the demographical development,” said Mette Frederiksen.

The European year and demographic developments have been highlighted in different arenas in the Nordic region. Norway’s Minister of Labour, Hanne Bjurstrøm, also focused on youth unemployment when she opened the national conference on active ageing, organised by Oslo’s Centre for Senior Policy.

Bjurstrom“Youth unemployment is the greatest threat to succeeding with an active senior policy, because it can influence attitudes to older people in the labour market.” 

She went on to say that Norway is relatively lucky because the country has for many decades had a higher birth rate and higher employment rates among older workers than countries in the EU. This she puts down to Norway’s active policies on gender equality and families.

“But,” she said, “this demands solidarity between generations when fewer numbers of young people must produce wealth for larger numbers of older people. 

“The demographic development puts the generational contract to the test. To strengthen that contract we need both parties on board - older people must not take too many short term retirements and young people must accept that the tasks in their working lives will be tailored to fit an entire lifetime.”

70 a good limit

Hanne Bjurstrøm also spoke about the consequences of pensions and retirement.

“We must tailor the pension system to allow for choices.”

Norway has initiated a pension reform with a flexible retirement age from 2011. This means people can draw on their old age pensions when they turn 62, while combining this with work. Today six in ten pensioners under 67 work while drawing on their pension. The pension is adjusted according to life expectancy. That means when it goes up, future pensioners must work a bit longer for the same pension which today’s pensioners draw. The retirement age for certain occupations, like police, prison guards and defence jobs, stays at 60. 

Hanne Bjurstrøm raised questions about such special age limits and to which degree old age pensions should still be allowed to be combined with various forms of short-term pensions - for instance sick pay. She remained sceptical to changing the standard retirement age of 70.

“It’s not certain that the best senior political initiative is to get rid of the 70 years age barrier.”

No one size fits all

The need for a pension reform, the importance of pensions adjusted to living age and the possibility for a flexible withdrawal from working life were also themes brought to the fore by the EU Commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion, László Andor, during the opening of the ‘European year for active ageing and solidarity between generations 2012’ in Copenhagen. He was challenged by trade unions who were worried about a labour market mis-match when the retirement age goes up and jobs run out.

AndorLászló Andor’s main message was ”no one size fits all”, and that there is more to active ageing than pensions.

“Active ageing is about creating better opportunities in the labour market, but it is also about education and learning, about health and social services and about housing and public infrastructure. And it is about attitudes,” he added and talked about his impressions from Denmark:

“The way in which 60 and 70 year olds in Denmark dress, behave, cycle around and simply get on with life is so different from the stereotypical image of an older person.

“But it is more than the bike and the clothes, 58 percent of people between 55 and 64 are in work, while the average for the same age group in the EU is below 50 percent. And youth unemployment in Denmark is also lower than the EU average.

“This clearly shows that older people are not taking jobs from the young,” said László Andor. 

The differences in Europe are enormous, however. This is clearly demonstrated by the desperation found in parts of Europe where the economic crisis, unemployment and poverty remain focus points, and where people take to the streets to protest against governments’ cuts to the public sector.

“How can I go back home and report that people need to be more active?” a Romanian journalist asked EU Commissioner László Andor.

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