Europe is facing a demographic crisis. Nine of the 10 nations with the largest populations of over-60s and over-80s are in Europe.After decades of greying, Europe’s pension and healthcare systems are struggling to cope with the rise in the numbers of elderly and proportional decline of the working population.
A European Commission report last year suggested that by 2060, there will be just two workers for every person over 65 – half today’s figure. The old-age dependency ratio, which shows the number of people over 65, compared to those aged 15-64, will rise from today’s 28% to 50%.
In 1950, 8% of Europe’s population was 65 or over, by 1990 it was 12.7% and by 2015 17.6%, according a Pew Research Centre report. The U.N. suggests the figure could reach 30% by 2050. Six European countries – Italy, Greece, Germany, Portugal, Finland and Bulgaria – already have a fifth of their population aged 65 or older.
Given the strain on services a solution is needed. Can couples be persuaded to make more babies? Should we all be working into our old age and forgetting about long leisurely retirements? Or is more migration the answer? Over half of asylum seekers in Europe are aged between 18 and 34. Add in teenagers and children, and you have a migrant population of which 81% are under 34.
We had a comment from Yorgos who pointed out that the dramatic drop in birth rates across most European countries has made retirement and social security plans unsustainable. We put his point to Sandra Rainero, Policy Advisor on Migration, Youth and Social Innovation at URBACT, a programme promoting cooperation among European cities. How would she respond to Yorgos’ suggestion that Europe needs immigrants in order to prosper?
I agree, but not as the only solution: the low fertility rate in Europe is part of the demographic change affecting the whole continent. Migration will be only one of the factors influencing this trend, but possibly not the determining one in terms of ageing. Studies prove that although migrant families have more children, they quickly adapt to the hosting society also in terms of fertility rates. The sustainability of the welfare system is at stake and longer life expectancy requires a holistic and inclusive approach in different policy areas to ensure the well-being of people living in Europe, regardless of their origin, including robust family policy and ways to attract, educate to EU values and leverage immigrants’ skills.
For another view, we also put Yorgos’ point to Giuseppe Gesano, Associate Researcher at the CNR-IRPPS, Institute of Research on Population and Social Policies – National Council of Research, in Italy.
Fundamentally, I agree with Yorgos. However, immigrants can aid the equilibrium of social security systems (SSS) more in the short- and medium-run than in the long run, when they will also retire. If the SSS is fair, pensions should be paid also to them (actually, it depends on retirement rules and, somewhat, on their permanence in the immigration country). In the case of too few new working immigrants, the SSS would be over-charged consequently. Another condition is necessary for immigrants to sustain the SSS: they must stay and work regularly, and pay pension contributions. At present in Italy there are 2 million foreign workers paying SSS contributions against 40 thousand immigrants receiving old-age pensions.
We also had a comment from Rudi, in Croatia, who argued that European governments are not putting in place the right polices to promote the development of younger populations and to put young people into work. How does Giuseppe Gesano respond?
Rudi is right in pointing out that we are not ready to deal with population ageing. Our social security systems were conceived in times of labour-force abundance against few retirees. Our health systems are directed more to cure than to prevent illnesses. Because of ‘inertia’ and (probably) for electoral reasons governments’ attention goes more to the elderly than to young people. However, dealing with these problems is not only a government task. Changes in our mentality must follow on the lengthening of life and mass ageing: e.g., working till older ages and caring for our and others’ health and wellbeing.
With a different point of view, Catherine, in the UK, disputed the figures and argued that the mass immigration of older people was causing Europe’s aging population. Immigration is therefore the problem, not the cure, she said. We asked Sandra Rainero for a response:
Look at the facts and statistics – it is not too difficult – data shows that migration to Europe is very young (with some exception for the Syrian refugee crisis, where also older people flee with their family). In fact, there are scores of minors, often unaccompanied, going to Europe either to reunite with other family members or searching for a better life. The opposite is also true, there is an increasing mobility of elderly people to lower-income countries because the quality vs. cost of life is better there and they can live their retirement life more comfortably.
How can Europe cope with its aging population? Should immigration be seen as an opportunity rather than a burden? Can Europeans be persuaded to work into their 70s? Or would they prefer to invite in younger workers from overseas? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!