Aging Europe: Is ‘Intergenerational Solidarity’ the Answer?

Aging Europe: Is ‘Intergenerational Solidarity’ the Answer?

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It has been a busy couple of weeks for The European Commission.  A ten-day session in Dublin was dedicated to getting Ireland’s economy out of recession. On April 20, the commission called for a 4.9 percent budget increase for 2012, provoking stern criticism from European ministers and lawmakers.

Today,  Friday, April 29, is the European Day of Intergenerational Solidarity. The European Commission is launching its official “Access for All” website for the 2012 European Year of Active Ageing. The site aims to show how various stakeholders can “promote the objectives of the EU Year 2012 … Active Ageing in employment, Active Ageing in the Community (volunteering and caring) and Healthy ageing at home.” If it sounds like more European bureaucratese, it might be, but the Commission has high hopes. The Year of Active Ageing, ideally, will expand and encourage the group that contributes to healthy aging, from policy makers, to the private sector, to public transportation, to social services, and beyond.  

That’s important as Europe faces the costs of supporting an aging population. The opening of the website comes less than two weeks after the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released its “Society at a Glance,” a study that “offers a concise overview of quantitative social trends and policies across the OECD.” Among the most striking data in the report is the projected “old-age support ratio”—a ratio that measures the number of people over 65 relative to those who are 20-64, or what the report calls “working age.” The OECD projects that, by 2050, the working-age to old-age ratio will be cut in half, meaning that the working population will have to double its support for the elderly. Japan, Italy, and Germany have the most troubling projections, each with anticipated rates of fewer than two workers to every elderly person. Analyzing demographics through this data produces useful figures, and aging expert Richard Jackson has used it before in his “Global Aging Preparedness Index.”

The U.S. is in better shape than most OECD countries, with a projected ratio of 2.6-to-1That is still unsustainable, as it’s just over half the current ratio. A recent blog post in the New York Times, quoted comments from Harvard professor Stephen Ansolabehere that the  demographic shift in the U.S. is eased by immigrants, who are, on average, younger than “the typical American.”

If knowledge is power, then the official data, case studies, and collection of information will help Europe find its competitive angle to position aging populations as a driver of economic growth. It also doesn't hurt that, as part of this exercise, they’ve dedicated a multi-billion dollar fund for innovation to support their aging population.  If they get this right – and turn their aging populations into a wealth creating engine – maybe they’re still in the race for winning in the 21st century. 

Executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is also managing partner at High Lantern Group and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College.