New Social Vulnerabilities in the Baltic Sea Region
On November 14, 2017, experts from the realms of research, policy, and civil society met in the Nordic Embassies in Berlin to discuss the topic of "New social vulnerabilities in the Baltic Sea Region." The event – which was kindly hosted the Embassy of Sweden – was organized by the Max Planck Institute of Demographic Research in Rostock, the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Policy in Munich, and Population Europe; in cooperation with the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS).
Johan Frisell, Minister Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Sweden in Berlin, opened the event by pointing out that one of the starting points of the Presidency of the Council of the Baltic Sea States, which Sweden is currently exercising, is to identify new challenges for the Baltic Sea Area that need to be addressed. Stressing that the region clearly faces new demographic challenges, he stated that the main questions that arise in this context are to what extent the countries and the sub-regions of the Baltic Sea Area influence each other, and to what extent common solutions to shared problems can be found. “We cannot afford to neglect social aspects in our cooperation,” Frisell said.
In his welcome note, Andreas Edel, Executive Secretary of Population Europe, sketched out the context in which the event was organized: namely, the Baltic Sea State Project funded by the Max Planck Society. Observing that research, policy, and society have, in recent years, largely been focused on issues of active and healthy aging, he emphasized that this project seeks to learn more about older people who are no longer active and healthy, and who are therefore likely to suffer from socioeconomic disadvantages, deteriorating health conditions, or other individual stress factors. Edel stressed that to better understand the current situation and the long-term trends in social vulnerability among different welfare-state regimes and in various political and historical settings, it is important to build on existing international research collaboration efforts, and to promote dialogue between stakeholders in research, policy, and society. "Dealing with vulnerable populations represents one of the greatest challenges for our societies in the future. Let us try to solve these challenges together," Edel said.
Hans Olsson, Ambassador, Department for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden and Chairman of the Committee of Senior Officials of the Council of the Baltic Sea States, reported that demographic challenges are related to two of the three priorities of the Swedish Presidency of the Council of the Baltic Sea States: sustainability and adapting to change. He emphasized that demographic change can have severe political, economic, and social consequences; but that tackling these challenges can also provide opportunities for closer cooperation. "I am convinced that in many aspects, whatever potential problems could arise, they could be handled more effectively if we do it together on a regional basis," Ambassador Olsson said.
Mikko Myrskylä, Executive Director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, talked about the patterns of health inequalities in the Baltic Sea States. According to Myrskylä, when we look at how these patterns have developed in the Baltic Sea Region in recent decades, we can see that health inequalities have decreased across the total population of the region, but have increased between different population groups. This means, he said, that health and longevity is increasingly determined by the population group people happen to belong to. Citing examples from Finland and Germany, Myrskylä showed that these patterns can be largely explained by differences in the health behaviors of different groups, particularly in terms of smoking, alcohol consumption, and obesity. Myrskylä emphasized that policies play a crucial role in addressing these problematic behaviors. "At the individual level, it is up to each person to decide whether to engage in bad or good health behavior," Myrskylä said. "But policy, of course, provides the framework in which individuals make these decisions."
In his keynote speech, "New social vulnerabilities, social law and the welfare state," Ulrich Becker, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy in Munich, explained how traditional social policy institutions have come under pressure because of demographic, industrial, and societal changes. He pointed out that while new social vulnerabilities are partly the result of these changing circumstances, they are also partly attributable to the shortcomings of social security systems. According to Becker, the main newly emerging social vulnerabilities are related to single parenthood and to the inclusion of migrants and individuals with disabilities. He identified long-term care dependency as new social risk, but also stressed the importance of so-called "secondary social risks," such as individuals being insufficiently covered by social security because they have spent years participating in vocational training or caring for children or other dependent people. According to Becker, reforming social security systems is necessary, and should lead to more universality, variety, and integrality. Becker added, however, that he does not believe we need to get rid of traditional security schemes. Instead, he argued, "what we need is more coordination between the traditional schemes we already have." He further pointed out that the Baltic Sea Region represents a highly suitable setting for learning more about the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches, and for identifying best practices. "The interesting thing is, we have national politics, but we also have joint social policy trends; and this is what makes this kind of comparison so fruitful in the end," Becker said.
The following panel discussion shed light on the issue of "Political, economic and social challenges of new social vulnerabilities in the Baltic Sea Region" from a more policy-driven perspective, bringing together researchers and stakeholders from several countries of the Baltic Sea Region.
Liina Carr, Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and Member of the Workers’ Group of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), warned that we are still treating the younger generation of today like the previous generations who worked until they retired and then collected their pensions "But that is no longer the case, because today young people change jobs, travel, and do different projects," Carr said. "The question is: How do we guarantee they get a pension they can retire on, and how can we make social security more accessible?" Carr recommended that we seek to educate our children so that they have enough skills to enter the labor market and to remain employed (e.g., through lifelong learning). "Let’s organize our ways of life so that we actually can provide the necessary education, health care, and a decent old age," she said. Carr also stressed that the unions "want a situation in which we do not have working poor." She added: "We have too many people in Europe who are working full time and their income is still below poverty."
Speaking from the perspective of elderly people, Ebbe Johansen, President of AGE Platform Europe and Vice President of DaneAge, stressed that not all older people are vulnerable, and that the majority are doing very well. "The chronological age is outdated," he argued, observing that the elderly can stay in the labor market and guide younger people, and can also do a lot for their communities as volunteers. "There is still a lot of potential in helping older people to contribute," he said. Johansen warned that loneliness among older people is becoming a big problem, and that we need to take active steps to combat age discrimination. He also pointed out that not only political actors but also NGOs can take effective action on these issues. In addition, he discussed the pressing problem of care. "We are very much in need of a proper care system," Johansen said, "Politicians need to give sufficient resources to carers so that they are able to do a proper job which they can be proud of. As only around 20% of older people are in need of care, either home care or residential care, it should be possible to deliver a dignified care service for these vulnerable older people."
Øystein Kravdal, Professor at the Department of Economics at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Oslo, stressed the role that the family situation plays in people’s wellbeing. "The mortality disadvantage of the non-married has increased," he noted. "Also, childbearing is linked to mortality. Those who have one child have a higher mortality than those who have two children, and those who are childless have an even higher mortality." He emphasized that more research is needed to understand the forces underlying these patterns. "When more people are childless or have very few children and fewer people marry – which is likely to happen – this will contribute adversely to the development of life expectancy and health, which will also affect the overall need for health care," Kravdal said. He further stressed that it is "very important that people with imagination and political power come up with good interventions to deal with these challenges."
Luule Sakkeus, Director of the Estonian Institute for Population Studies at Tallinn University, argued that a country is successfully aging when the number of healthy years is increasing faster than life expectancy. She pointed out this is currently the case in only a very few EU countries, and that the welfare regimes of these countries differ greatly. "We cannot really say there is one type of welfare regime which helps one country to have better healthy ageing of its population than another," she said. Sakkeus also pointed out that old age is not fixed, but is moving. "We should not stress age so much, but rather our abilities, knowledge, and what we can offer," she argued. Pointing to the emergence of new social vulnerabilities, she emphasized that research is essential because social vulnerabilities are constantly changing. "There will be other social vulnerabilities in the future that differ from the ones we are facing today, and we need to understand the causal relations," Sakkeus said. "Only then will we be able to identify political interventions that might help."
Anatoly G. Vishnevsky, Director of the Institute of Demography of the Higher School of Economics of the National Research University of Moscow, stressed that demographic change creates many problems, but also many opportunities. "These difficulties are a result of the great success of a longer life expectancy," he said. "The decline in mortality and the amelioration of the health status might be the most successful result of human history." Still, Vishnevsky warned, policymakers know too little about demography, and should focus more on addressing the bad health behavior of the population, particularly in Russia. He closed by pointing out that "we also need to rethink the problem of migration: Migration will be the most important demographic topic of the 21st century."
The debate was moderated by Bernd Hemingway, Deputy Director General of the Secretariat of the Council of the Baltic Sea States. "We need to bring the subject of social vulnerabilities more to the forefront of political discussion," Hemingway said. "The Council of the Baltic Sea States is very well positioned to bring good practices together in this field."