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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 49 - May 2006    
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Title  Turning the age pyramid on its head

When are you ‘old’? Nowadays, this is becoming at an increasingly advanced age. The terminology reflects the nuances of a changing reality: ‘active ageing’, senior citizens, the elderly and the very elderly. But whatever the words that are used, Europe is greying and it is a phenomenon that poses major challenges for the public finances (health care, pensions), the economy (shrinking workforce) and, at the human level, for the families and social organisations whose support is so vital in the twilight years. Researchers on the Soccare and Care Work projects are investigating all of these issues.

Turning the age pyramid on its head
© Frédéric Thiry
How to care for the youngest and the oldest members of society at a time of changing family structures and roles is an issue of crucial contemporary relevance. On the basis of extensive interviews, the Soccare project (New Kinds of Families, New Kinds of Social Care) has been looking at the new needs these changes are creating. One of the teams(1) focused on ‘multigenerational’ families. The coexistence of four or even five generations is becoming a relatively frequent phenomenon in Europe. This brings new roles, in particular, for what is known as the ‘sandwich generation’: mothers or grandmothers who are ‘sandwiched’ between young children and elderly parents, bearing responsibility for them both.

Double front
This ‘double front’ responsibility can prove testing, tiring and stressful and has very real consequences for family life. Researchers on the Soccare project found that “relationships between partners are transformed, not only by the symbolic and material weight of finding oneself having to care for somebody, but also by the effort of learning new skills. They discover that they have to invent a new role for themselves in their relationship.” It is easier to arrange for somebody to look after children than to send someone to care for grandparents – engendering an understandable sense of guilt. These new roles are not necessarily easy to assume in regard to the elderly either. The child becomes the responsible parent and vice versa. “The quality of the original relationship can be decisive. If it has always been positive, there is more likelihood that the child’s gratitude to the parent will alleviate the weight of the responsibility of providing care in old age.” (2)

Be that as it may, the reality is that this is a task often accepted due to the lack of an alternative. The elderly person refuses to go into an institution and most families understand this.

Family control
The solutions found for the care of elderly people vary across Europe due to cultural traditions, as well as to the efficiency of the social systems. Finland is a country where, thanks to efficient home help, many elderly people are autonomous and live alone (42% of men and 80% of women aged over 75). Portugal, on the other hand, is where elderly people have the least autonomy (16% and 33% respectively). There, as in Italy, families are often aided by people active in the informal economy. In France, specific public aid (Allocation personnalisée autonomie) provides various types of assistance (with housework, for health care, etc.) that allows people to remain in their own homes. 

Most European families have recourse to a mix of public aid, which is often well organised, and other alternatives, which can take the form of free services set up by volunteer groups. This growing reliance on professionals “can be seen as a response to needs that are not met by public social aid, but also as a desire to find more flexible and personalised solutions. Such systems have the advantage of leaving management of the care in the hands of the families themselves.”

The European generation gap EU-25, United States and Japan – 2000-2050
The European generation gapEU-25, United States and Japan – 2000-2050 © Source: European CommissionThe European generation gapEU-25, United States and Japan – 2000-2050 © Source: European Commission
In all three cases, a major decline in young people is likely to occur, while the share of the oldest age group will continue to increase, bringing an increased demand for care.
© Source: European Commission
Contrasting models
One of the working groups of the Care Work in Europe project looked at the situation of elderly people in Sweden, Spain and the United Kingdom (3). The aim was to compare the different types of aid offered, the training and working conditions of the carers, and the wishes of families and elderly people. These three countries with their different economic and socio-cultural conditions offer interesting contrasts.  

Public responsibility is a major factor in Sweden, where local paid services developed during the 1960s. Over time, this social work has become increasingly structured and hierarchal. The highly trained staff are backed up by a support team with genuine managerial status. 

Spain relies more on family solidarity, but has recently developed care services that meet national norms and are able to supplement the support given by families in cases where more demanding or complex care is needed. In the United Kingdom, people with a range of qualifications – although the general level of training is improving – provide a variety of services in both the residential and home care sector. Much of this work is undertaken by associations of voluntary workers.

Size of the youngest (15-24) and oldest (55-64) working age groups (EU 25 – 1995-2030)
Size of the youngest (15-24) and oldest (55-64) working age groups (EU 25 – 1995-2030) © Source: European Commission
Around 2009, the descending and ascending curves representing these two population groups will cross. In 2050, there are expected to be 66 million workers aged 55-64 and 48 million aged 15-24. The average age of workers will decline from 2010. This raises the urgent need to improve the employability of older workers to prepare the labour market for ageing.
© Source: European Commission
Profile of the care workers
In all three countries, the typical profile of the care worker is a woman of about 40 years of age whose children are old enough to look after themselves. Most of the professionals interviewed by the researchers say they have good relations with the elderly people they look after, as well as with their families, in fact often seeing support for the family as among their responsibilities. When speaking of their work, the British highlight the importance of communication, empathy, patience, the ability to listen, a sense of responsibility and the ability to give of one’s time. The Spanish also focus on ‘affective values’ and the quality of relations, while the Swedes place a premium on know-how and abilities in the field of health care, on “experience based on knowledge”. 

Many of them stress the complexity of a job which often presents a number of dilemmas: the need to be efficient, while paying attention to the requests of the elderly person, combining administrative and practical tasks, and trying to establish personal relations, despite the pressure on their time. Many also feel that their work is not recognised by society. There are many reasons for this: it is invisible and is associated with a low level of qualifications, and is not seen as a priority because it is an activity without tangible results. It no doubt also suffers from the generally negative image associated with old age. There is also the fact that – except in Sweden – wages are low for these jobs which are psychologically and physically demanding and offer little scope for promotion. 

Despite all this, while the public services have generally assumed responsibility in the child care sector, in the future they are going to have to intervene more concretely in providing care for elderly people, whatever the cost. 

Trends in the European population (EU-25, per age group (1950-2050)
Trends in the European population (EU-25, per age group (1950-2050) © Source: European Commission
As the ‘baby boom’ generation climbs up the age pyramid, we see more older people and fewer young people. The European population grew from 350 million in 1950 to 418 million in 1975, and to 450 million in 2000. In 2025, it is expected to reach 470 million but is then likely to decrease to 449 million in 2050. It will take two decades before ageing starts to have a negative effect on the absolute size of the population, but its consequences will be apparent earlier, especially on the labour market and in the health care sector.
© Source: European Commission

(1) Four research groups worked in five countries (Finland, France, Italy, Portugal and the United Kingdom) on issues facing, in particular, single-parent families, couples with two working partners, immigrant families and multi-generational families. 
(2) Final report of one of the project groups: Trifiletti Simoni e Pratesi - Care arrangements in double front carer families.
(3) Other Care Work teams looked at the care of young children and disabled people in the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Hungary. 

Printable version

Features 1 2 3 4
  Social cohesion and demographic challenges
  Europe is running low on children
  Juggling work and family life
  Turning the age pyramid on its head

  Third, fourth, fifth ages…

The Europeans interviewed by members of the Dialog project have esteem and respect for elderly people who “help maintain and transmit traditions and can allow young people to benefit from their experience and knowledge”.

Nevertheless, the ageing of the population remains a subject ...
  The Family and Social Policy

Projects supported by the EU under the Fourth (1994-1998) and Fifth (1998-2002) Framework Programmes

  • Care work  (Care work in Europe: current understandings and future directions)
    Coordinators: Peter ...

  • Green Paper on ‘Confronting demographic change: a new solidarity between the generations’Communication from the Commission (COM(2005)94 final
  • Soccare project
  • Care Work project

    Features 1 2 3 4
      Third, fourth, fifth ages…

    The Europeans interviewed by members of the Dialog project have esteem and respect for elderly people who “help maintain and transmit traditions and can allow young people to benefit from their experience and knowledge”.

    Nevertheless, the ageing of the population remains a subject of concern for half of respondents, especially for the Czechs, Germans, Poles, Estonians and Lithuanians. So who should assume responsibility in the face of this change? Both society – 95% of Austrians believe it is up to the public authorities to meet the needs of elderly people by providing suitable institutions and services – and the family, who must demonstrate solidarity between generations.  

    The majority (from 64 to 88% depending on the country) believe that it is best for elderly people to remain in their own home for as long as possible, benefiting from home care services, as well as support from family members. Having elderly parents living with their children is still a widely accepted notion (about 80%) in Romania, Poland and Lithuania, while just 16.4% like the idea in Germany. 

    Linked to population ageing and its cost for social security is the question of the retirement age, which varies from country to country. Most of those interviewed favour retirement before the age of 60: at 52 and 53 in Slovenia and Poland and at 59 in Germany and the Netherlands. Few want to continue working after the age of 65, even if they believe that it should be possible to work beyond the retirement age if one wishes (more than 50% in Estonia and almost 40% in Romania).

    Source: Dialog – Population Policy Acceptance Study (PPAS)

      The Family and Social Policy

    Projects supported by the EU under the Fourth (1994-1998) and Fifth (1998-2002) Framework Programmes

    • Care work  (Care work in Europe: current understandings and future directions)
      Coordinators: Peter Moss and Claire Cameron, Thomas Coram Research Unit, London (UK)
      Partners : DK, NL, ES, SE, HU
    • DynSoc (The Dynamics of social change in Europe)
      Coordinator: Richard Berthoud, ISER, University of Essex (UK)
      Partners: DK, DE, IE, IT, NL
    • Fadse (Family Structure, labour market participation and the dynamics of social exclusion)
      Coordinator: Christopher Heady, University of Bath (UK)
      Partners: AT, DE, EL, PO, UK, NO
    • Fare (Family reunification evaluation project)
      Coordinator: Raffaele Bracalenti, Psychoanalytic Institute for Social Research, Rome (IT)
      Partners: FR, DE, IT, SE, UK
    • Fenics (Female employment and family formation in national institutional contexts)
      Coordinator: Peter Elias, Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick (UK)
      Partners: FR, DE, NL, ES, UK
    • HWF (Households, work and flexibility)
      Coordinator: Claire Wallace, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna (AT)
      Partners: NL, SE, UK, BG, CZ, HU, RO, SL
    • Iprosec (Improving policy responses and outcomes to socio-economic challenges)
      Coordinator: Linda Hantrais, European Research Centre, Loughborough University (UK)
      Partners: UK, FR, DE, EL, IT, SE, EE, HU, PL
    • Men (Thematic Network on the social problem and societal problematisation of men and masculinities)
      Coordinator: Keith Pringle, University of Sunderland (UK)
      Partners: FI, UK, DE, PL, EE, IT, LV, NO, RU
    • MoCho (The rationale of Motherhood choices: influences of employment conditions and of public policies)
      Coordinator: Danièle Meulders, DULBEA, Université Libre de Bruxelles (BE)
      Partners: FR, EL, IT, NL
    • Nieps (Network for integrated European population studies)
      Coordinator: Thérèse Jacobs, CBGS (BE)
      Partners: A, FI, DE, IT, NL, CZ, EE, HU, LV, PL
    • SocCare (New kinds of families, new kinds of social care: shaping multi-dimensional European policies for informal and formal care)
      Coordinators: Jorma Sipilä and Teppo Kröger, University of Tampere (FI)
      Partners: FR, IT, PO, UK
      TSFEPS (Changing family structure and social policy: childcare services in Europe and social cohesion)
      Coordinators: Bernard Eme and Laurent Fraisse, CRIDA-LSCI (FR)
      Partners: BE, DE, IT, ES, SE, UK, BG
    • W&M (Working and Mothering: social practices and social policies)
      Coordinators: Ute Gerhard and Johann Wolfgang, Goethe Universität, Frankfurt (DE)
      Partners: FR, DE, IT, NL, ES, SE, UK, NO