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Event Review

Long-Live Europe: Demographic Prospects for Europe in the Next Decades

Population Europe Event
Jun 01
  • Source: Tomas Petrus
  • Source: Tomas Petrus
  • Source: Tomas Petrus
  • Source: Tomas Petrus
  • Source: Tomas Petrus
  • Source: Tomas Petrus

Europe’s population will age over the next decades, as demographers predict. How precise are these demographic forecasts? How much do they vary across Europe? Which support strategies for healthy ageing will get on the political agenda? These were the main questions discussed at a conference on 1st of June in Prague, organised by Charles University and Population Europe.

Dealing with uncertainty

Although policy makers depend on forecasting in order to make sustainable decisions for the future, calculating future developments, like how many children people will have or the flow of migration, has a high degree of uncertainty. These challenges of demographic forecasting were addressed by Tomáš Kučera from Charles University in Prague and one of the organisers of the event. Even mortality as the most stable component of population development is influenced by various social and economic factors. Still, the horizon of selected population forecasts has strikingly increased over the last 50 years, Kučera showed. Whereas demographic forecasts in the 1970s looked just 30 years ahead to the year 2000, current predictions lead us 90 years ahead to the year 2100. The demographer criticised practitioners for commonly trusting extrapolation techniques, analogies and magic numbers. They should, he said, take more demographic knowledge into account to obtain more probable assumptions.

Graziella Caselli, Department of Statistical Sciences at the University of Rome "La Sapienza", presented empirical results about life expectancy in Europe. There are still significant differences between men and women and also between countries, which will likely persist in the future. Seeing linear growth in the development of life expectancy, she is convinced that the conventional extrapolation of mortality as used by the UN projections underestimates future developments by around four to seven years.

She also linked current pension age reforms to life expectancy in European countries, and calculated whether or not they are sustainable. In this respect, a country with a low life expectancy does not need a late retirement age, whereas in countries where people live longer they also need to work longer. Caselli found that only Finland and France, both of which still have retirement ages under 65, would need to increase their retirement age. Some countries seem to have retirement ages well matched to life expectancy, like Italy or the Netherlands. Nevertheless, she also found countries, like Denmark, Germany and Hungary, which due to their increasing life expectancies have introduced a higher pension age than necessary.

Be healthy, feel good, know more - live longer?

Jitka Rychtaříková, Department of Demography and Geography at Charles University, emphasised how important it is for governments and health services to know more about health and quality of life of the elderly, about their limitations and chronic illnesses.  Interestingly, in her research she could not find a correlation between “the share of years spent without chronic morbidity or without activity limitations with life expectancy”. The subjective feeling of good health, however, seems to positively influence the length of survival.

How long and how healthy people live can be predicted by their educational attainment, Diego Ramiro Fariñas, from the Spanish Council for Scientific Research in Madrid, showed by presenting a case study from Andalusia. Andalusia has the lowest life expectancy in Spain and very high levels of unemployment and illiteracy. Ramiro Fariñas found big differences in this region for life expectancy related to educational attainment and showed that higher educated people in Andalusia generally live longer: “Life expectancy at age 60 between illiterate and highly educated populations differed by 4.7 years for men and 4.3 years for women”. This is probably because educational attainment reflects other factors like nutrition, lifestyle and income.

The researcher is convinced that changes in education will have a key role in increasing life expectancy. Educational attainment seems also to be a very strong factor in demographic forecasting.

Challenges for policies …

Are politicians aware of the challenges of an ageing society? This was one question that Alexandre Sidorenko, European Centre for Social Welfare and Research in Vienna, tried to answer in his presentation.  Despite large differences in life expectancy between the old EU states, Central Europe, South-Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, life expectancy will increase everywhere. According to Sidorenko, some countries in South-Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union tend to underestimate these future developments, while the “old” European countries see it as a major concern. Sidorenko showed how governments follow the Madrid International Plan for Action on Ageing, which was introduced by the UN as a global plan in 2002 and has been monitored periodically since then. It focuses on older persons and development, advancing health and well-being into old age, and ensuring supportive environments. For the period between 2002 and 2007, 31 of 56 member states submitted national implementation reports. From these 31 countries, 12 focused on the adjustment of social projection systems, another 12 strived to ensure the quality of life at all ages, and eight mainly tried to adjust labour markets to the economic consequences of population ageing.

From the European Commission, Jorge Pinto Antunes, Senior Policy Officer in the Directorate General for Health and Consumers, called for a paradigm shift towards viewing ageing not only as a burden and a challenge, but an asset and an opportunity. The European Commission supports the European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing and has declared 2012 the European Year for Active Ageing and Intergenerational Solidarity. One aim is to increase the number of years people spend in good health when they become older. The European Commission has therefore developed a “Strategic Framework” with three pillars: Firstly, the prevention and the improvement of early diagnosis; secondly, the improvement of care and cure systems; and thirdly, active ageing and independent living. The European Commission also wants to support innovations and bring together interested stakeholders from the public and private sector. 

… and economies

How economies can adapt to more people needing special care was the focus of a presentation by Marie-Eve Joël, Professor at the Université Paris-Dauphine. Although costs for healthcare in the EU will likely increase from 7.7 % of the GDP in 2007 to 12.8 % in 2050, “only 0.7 percent of GDP can be attributed to demographic changes”, she said. Therefore, the expenses actually related to elderly people would be manageable, as long as the right decisions are made. For Joël, the main problem is the increase in neurogenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, which will create a great burden on informal carers and families. Joël expects that “the long term care supply will be deeply restructured, ‘industrialised’ and rationalised”. Her advice is to support informal care and families more, but also to invest in technical innovations and assistance systems, like telemedicine or robots for elderly people. This is a growing economic market for the future, but it requires consultation from health professionals. It needs disease management and case managers in health centres in an “integrated network which takes charge of a given population in a given territory”.

Focusing on motivation, gender, care or self responsibility?

In a panel discussion, experts considered the most important tasks towards addressing demographic change. Arguing with a long-term and comparative perspective, Hans Groth, Chairman of the Advisory of Board of the World Demographic Ageing Forum at the University of St. Gallen, argued that we need to adapt our outdated pension and retirement systems in order to compensate the massive shrinkage of the labour force. He also stressed that more people need to be included in the labour market and that we need to think about how to engage more seniors in productive ways. He is convinced that older people are neither less productive than younger nor do they take jobs from them.

“Older people often do not only want to work longer, but also have to,” Anne-Sophie Parent, Secretary General of the AGE Platform Europe, pointed out. In this context, she found the most pressing issue to be the constantly increasing gender pension gap. Parent stressed that this is also related to the question of how to better support women in the labour market and how to improve the work-family balance. She criticised the many political measures focusing on men staying at home to take care of the children as only shifting the problem from women to men, instead of solving it.

Alexandre Sidorenko, who is also a Global Ambassador for HelpAge International, reminded the audience to not forget about those people who are not able to work longer. He indicated that current discussions about ageing tend to focus on the question of how people can work longer, while the challenges of providing better care and support for the elderly in need seems to be ignored. Sidorenko argued that there is a strong need for social adjustments in this regard and that we could learn a lot by looking at best practices on the local level in Europe.

Finally, Joseph Troisi, from the European Centre for Gerontology and Geriatrics at the University of Malta, pointed out that older people are very heterogeneous. He stressed that healthy ageing requires not only individual efforts throughout the whole life, but an environment that supports these efforts effectively is needed, as well. For him, this is only partially a political challenge, but is also a challenge for civil society, the elderly themselves, their families and friends.

Writer : Katrin Schaar, Ann Zimmermann

Download full presentations as PDF:

Long live Europe: Demographic Prospects for Europe in the next Decades by Jitka Rychtaříková (Charles University in Prague): PDF iconpdf_document_rychtarikova.pdf

The Changing Causes of Mortality by Diego Ramiro Fariñas (Spanish Council for Scientific Research, Madrid): PDF iconpdf_document_ramiro_farinas.pdf

Mortality Conditions in Population Forecasts by Tomáš Kučera (Charles University in Prague ):  PDF iconpdf_document_kucera.pdf

Trends in Regional Survival Inequalities by Graziella Caselli (University of Rome "La Sapienza"): PDF iconpdf_document_caselli.pdf

Policy Responses to Population Ageing in Europe by Alexandre Sidorenko (European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research, Vienna): PDF iconpdf_document_sidorenko.pdf

The European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing by Jorge Pinto Antunes (European Commission, DG Health and Consumers): PDF iconpdf_document_pinto_antunes.pdf