Demography’s specter is haunting Europe, where low native birthrates and aging populations pose serious questions about national economies and their apparently indispensable social welfare. Birthrates in some European countries are under replacement levels. Others have either zero or low growth.
Europe’s aging population supposedly means that an ever decreasing segment will be economically active; that ever more welfare will be eaten up by an ever larger part and provided by an ever smaller part; that the health service will be unbearably burdened and charities will struggle, especially since so many of them are relying on state funds.
But is an aging population necessarily a tragedy?
More people are living longer, surviving previously fatal or debilitating diseases, and keeping their marbles longer. The real tragedy lies in social, political, and economic attitudes that have not kept pace with medical developments. Britain and other European countries have ongoing rows around raising the age at which people can claim their state pensions. People view the fact that they will have to work longer as a major disaster, but what is a fair retirement age these days?
The retirement age was fixed after World War II when conditions were very different. Average life expectancy was far lower, work for most people was physically much harder, and medicine could cope with far fewer diseases. It made sense to assume that people would retire at 60 or 65, take it easy for their few remaining years, then die without feeling any material need.
Trade unions and NGO-type charities attained their strongest positions in the decades after World War II. They are not likely to give up any ground without struggle. (Many charities provide important services to those who really need them. It’s just that those people are not likely to need them so much in their sixties—let alone their fifties, as the British charity Age Concern would have it—but in their eighties, and soon in their nineties.)
People can and should go on working longer. Being underutilized for a couple of decades while their physical and mental abilities remain strong and their experience is valuable would be poisonously destructive. Is there any reason, beyond the fact that they are often cheaper, why firms should not hire older workers, who are likely to be reliable and experienced? That would dispose of several “problems” the aging population supposedly creates. Society’s wealth-generating section would not shrink and the welfare-claiming sections would not continue swelling, at least not because of old age. One suspects there would be fewer medical “problems” if people over 60 or 65 did not feel that they were good for nothing but the scrap heap.
P. D. James recently wrote a new novel at age 90. Despite a debilitating disease, Stephen Hawking is still intellectually active at 71. Many quite aged House of Lords members work harder and make better legislative contributions than the youngsters so beloved by our political leaders. They are not freaks of nature; they are normal examples of an aging population.
Finding new work for the old would mean rethinking many assumptions—some decades old, some centuries. But given that people are living longer, fewer children are being born, and European social welfare is economically unsustainable, such a rethinking is long overdue. The one possible difficulty is that in the process, many people—hitherto well paid in bureaucracies, trade unions, and NGOs—might find themselves on that scrap heap.
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