Last year, the Institute for Prospective
Technological Studies (IPTS), part of the Joint Research Centre
(JRC), presented the results of its Futures project, an attempt
to take stock of the likely scientific, technological, economic
and social changes of the coming decades. Among other things, this
wide-ranging prospective study looked at the likely impact of demographic
change in Europe.
Apart from the social issues raised by an
ageing population (see Living life
to the end), the impact on the age structure of the working
population will be of crucial significance. In 2010, the 50-64 age
group will make up almost 30% of working Europeans (an 18% increase
compared to 1995), outnumbering the 15-29 age group.
'This rapid ageing of the working population will
be the first demographic shock and one which requires policy measures
now,' stresses Géry Coomans in the report on the Futures
project entitled Demographic and Social Trends. What is more,
this problem is coming at a time of increasingly rapid scientific
and technological progress.
The need for a radical rethinking of education
and training systems and mechanisms with a view to what is known
as Lifelong Learning is therefore becoming increasingly vital.
James Gavigan, the coordinator of the Demographic and Social Trends
Panel of the IPTS Futures project, is consequently calling for a
'shock therapy joining public and private efforts, to involve the
middle- to upper-age cohorts in appropriate continuous learning
up-skilling while there is still some time'.
Finland and Sweden
However, this plea for lifelong learning - one
of the priorities highlighted by the Union's education and training
policy - implies radical changes to the mindset which is blocking
the labour market. 'There seems to be a general aversion to ageing
workers,' believes Rita Asplund, a researcher at ETLA (the Research
Institute of the Finnish Economy). 'The older you are, the less
chance of being re-employed if you lose your job. And then if you
are re-employed, it is usually in a job in a non-technology firm
with much less job security. The employment is also commonly on
a temporary basis, often with the help of public subsidies for the
ETLA and other research institutes are working
on a multidisciplinary project (Towards a successful old age:
from a full working career to an active retirement) as part
of Finland's ambitious Research Programme on Ageing. This
is an issue which seems to be of particular pertinence in a country
which has opted firmly for new technologies (following the economic
difficulties of the 1990s) and where the difference in the level
of training between the over-45s and young people is particularly
Its neighbour, Sweden, is an example of a country
where population ageing, already more pronounced than in the other
Member States, is accompanied by an employment rate among the 55-59
age group which is one and a half times the EU average.
Sweden 'is anomalous with regard to the age-dependence of the training-participation
rate, with a relatively even spread over different age brackets,
compared to a steady decline of participation rates with age for
the EU as a whole,' notes James Gavigan. 'In fact, the highest job-related
training participation rate (20%) in Sweden is for 40-49 year-olds,
while over 59 year-olds at 10% is over five times the EU15 average.'
Overturning set ideas
Géry Cooman believes too many companies
are stuck in the thinking of the age of Taylorism and the outmoded
idea of a link between increasing age and shrinking productivity.
This attitude is particularly evident when large companies restructure,
systematically opting for early retirement for the over-50s, at
huge expense. This expert cites the results of research concluding
that older employees possess valuable experience and skills which
must be passed on. 'In some cases, the wave of early retirements
we have seen in recent years in Europe culminated a little later
in those same over-50s being asked to return to work.'
Of course one can argue that older workers often
have higher salaries. Maybe. But then again salaries are not determined
by seniority alone, but also by experience. Alan Walker (see box
entitled Good practices) also makes the point that a number
of studies have found that 'older workers are no less efficient',
have 'fewer accidents and remain committed to the company'. The
conclusion is that 'their net average cost to the employer is comparable
to that of younger staff'.
Finally, many companies believe that a broad range
of ages, allowing for a balanced team structure, is a positive factor
at the human level and in terms of efficiency.
Their heart in their work
This does not mean to say, however, that
the older people are the more they put their heart into their work.
'Those who are close to retirement age see retirement as an inviolable
social contract they have entered into with society,' points out
Lena Sommestad (IFS, Stockholm), seeing this issue as a major obstacle
to remaining in work. James Gavigan is more optimistic, believing
that today's sudden end to work at a compulsory age is often, in
fact, unwelcome for healthy 60-year-olds. He places his trust in
the ability of the present generation of baby boomers(1)
- who will soon form the 'cohort' of the 'elderly' and are therefore
at the heart of what he calls a 'demographic time bomb' - to rewrite
the rules as they go through life. 'With the need to find a new
balance of social responsibility and cost-coverage this generation
may in turn reinvent old age and retirement, building on ideas such
as semi-retirement and work arrangements, in flexible formats which
accommodate individual choice and preferences. Much innovation in
public policy, business, civil society and people's mindsets is
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To find out more
James P. Gavigan, The Learning
Imperative for Europe's Ageing Workforce, The IPTS Report n°38.
Géry Coomans, Demographic
and Social Trends (Futures Report), Europe's Changing Demography
Constraints and Bottlenecks , IPTS.
David Mercer, The Future of Education
in Europe until 2010, IPTS
55+ (NL) employment agency specialises in finding jobs for
this age group. The German metallurgical company Keller GmbH
has decided to build on the experience of its older skilled
workers by introducing special courses to train them in the
new industrial technologies. The financial company Fidisco
(BE) has decided to reduce the working week for the over-60s
by two hours with no loss of earnings. Ruoka-Saarioinen Oy
(FI) has acquired new equipment and modified its facilities
to cater for its senior citizens.
These are all examples
of human resources management which takes full account of
older workers. Alan Walker's guide gives a number of examples
'in the field', looks at the actions and good practices from
the angle of the employers, unions and individuals, and identifies
the principle ways of removing age barriers, including a non-discriminatory
recruiting policy, training and promotion actions, opportunities
for flexible working hours, taking into account ergonomic
data and, of course, an enterprise culture adapted to this
Alan Walker, Managing ageing workers
- Guide to good practices, published by the European Foundation
for the improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 1999.
In 1996, life expectancy in the most developed
countries was 74 years for men and 82 years for women - with
the Japanese and the French obtaining the highest scores.
The figure shows a regular increase of 2.5 years every decade
(three months a year).
Particularly good news is that people are
not only living longer, but better, with a longer healthy
life span. At the age of 80, life expectancy for women (ten
years) is close to that of men (seven years) in the countries
with the highest scores. One girl in two born today in an
OECD country will live for a century. In France, the number
of 100-year-olds is expected to increase by more than 3 000%