At first sight, the demographic
future could seem bright for the younger generation. With fewer
of them, each individual's contribution will be worth even more.
Gone will be the days when structural unemployment made it hard
to enter the labour market. But could
this be a simplistic view? At the brainstorming of European ministers
in Uppsala (SE) last March, Lena Sommestad, head of the Institute
for Futures Studies (IFS) in Stockholm, warned against naive optimism.
'Demographic change is in danger of creating a shortage of human
and financial resources. Faced with growing demands from older people,
society will have to make difficult choices on how it allocates
education budgets. Also, as demand for labour in Europe will increase
primarily in the field of personal services for the elderly, the
thrust of innovation within the European economy could slow. As
young people are faced with this less-stimulating and less-competitive
labour market, they could be less inclined to continue their education.
Such a situation would create problems recruiting young people into
careers in science and technology.'
An ageing population overturns
a whole lot of socio-economic and cultural data. How will it be
possible, for example, to replace skilled human resources - including
researchers? In the latter case, in addition to the natural shrinkage
in numbers there is the added problem of the still very real attractions
of self-imposed exile (see box entitled Study and
Opening up Europe's universities
What long-term strategies could Europe develop
to compensate for this shortage of young brains? Researchers at
the IFS recommend a three-pronged approach.
The first could be to improve the quality
of education from the earliest age. Being better prepared, students
might be more inclined to opt for courses with a demanding reputation.
'Concentrating on education for children and young people is the
sine qua non for a competitive economy and reduces the need for
basic training programmes for adults. Furthermore, an early introduction
to science and technology helps develop not only a knowledge-based
society, but also a knowledge-based culture.'(1)
However, making education a priority could prove a difficult political
choice in a society where the elderly are in the majority, and which
may prefer to direct public money more towards health care or social
The second response lies in a family policy
which takes better account of the situation of young couples, including
their need for housing, family benefit, etc. This recommendation
is not inspired by a desire to encourage people to have more children,
but to allow often well-trained young women to realise their career
potential. As a corollary, this would allow research centres and
industries to benefit from an often inaccessible labour pool.
The third strategy for an ageing society
is to make Europe more open to students from countries with a younger
age structure. Although it is the United States which has the reputation
of being most 'welcoming' in this respect, Europe does not in fact
compare so unfavourably: 3.7% of students in the EU are foreign,(2)
compared to 3.2% in the USA. The leaders in this respect are Austria
(11.5% foreign students), the United Kingdom (10.8%) and Belgium
(9.8%). These numbers could be further
increased by action at source. An example? 'If the population of
North Africa is added to that of Europe, the combined age structure
becomes much younger with a remarkably balanced population. An effective
way of rendering our universities accessible to these young people
could be for Europe to invest in basic, primary and secondary education
in these countries.'
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Contrary to popular belief, a proportionally
greater number of students study science subjects in Europe
than in the United States and Japan. This is reflected in
the degrees awarded, with 38% in science subjects in the Union
compared to 30% in Japan and 29% in the US (figures for 1996-97).
These percentages vary according to the particular degree
and country. Between 1990 and 1997, a growing number of students
in the Netherlands and Portugal obtained qualifications in
S&T, compared to a slight fall in Belgium, Spain and Italy,
and a marked fall in Denmark and Sweden.
Nevertheless, there are not enough skilled
personnel available in Europe to fill the jobs available.
This is due to the continuing 'brain drain'. Between 1993
and 1997, the number of Europeans holding teaching posts in
science and technology in the US increased from 76 000 to
84 000, of which 55% were recruited by the private sector.
Of these, 23% were aged under 34, and 35% between 35 and 55;
24% held a doctorate.
Pessimistic observers point to the scale
of loss this represents. But the optimists point out that
many of these expats return to their continent of origin at
some point, bringing with them the knowledge and experience
acquired elsewhere. But there must be more incentive for them
to do so. The Taiwanese Government has clearly understood
this. After implementing a very concrete policy, encouraging
start-ups for example, Taiwan now has a 60% return rate.