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The Population Europe Exhibition “How to get to 100 – and enjoy it”, which has been travelling over the past years throughout Europe, was, by invitation of Mr Heinz Becker MEP and with financial support of the Economic and Social Research Council, on display from 26th to 29th of September at the European Parliament in Brussels. The exhibition was opened with an event on 26th September, which Population Europe organised in collaboration with the ESRC Research Centre for Population Change CPC at the University of Southampton and the Office of Mr Heinz Becker MEP.

The event was opened by Mr Heinz Becker MEP and Dr Andreas Edel, Executive Secretary of Population Europe, who welcomed a diverse audience from research, policy, and civil society.

Two scientific keynotes formed the first part of the opening event: Professor Jane Falkingham OBE, Director of the CPC at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, presented latest research findings on the issue of work life balance and its policy implications. In particular, Professor Falkingham discussed the situation of individuals in mid-life, who often have to take care of both, younger and older family members, and reconcile these duties with their jobs. Research conducted by Professor Falkingham and colleagues shows that caring duration has an impact on the likelihood of reducing or withdrawing from paid employment in mid-life, particularly for women. For example, continuous carers have a 66% higher chance of reducing employment or stopping work altogether. When looking at the policy implication, Professor Falkingham concluded that costs of juggling work and family life are of a significant scope: In the U.S. it is estimated that the cost of providing eldercare in terms of lost productivity to US businesses is over $17 billion a year. At the same time, working carers are two to three times more likely to suffer poorer health and often have to deal with family conflicts and financial pressures. As a result, Professor Falkingham called for flexible working policies that also particularly address the private sectors, as it is still slow to respond to the identified challenges.

In the second keynote, Professor Axel Börsch-Supan, Director of the Munich Center for the Economics of Aging at the ax Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy in Germany, elaborated on the questions of whether active ageing in a silver economy was wishful thinking only. Professor Börsch-Supan stressed that research shows not only that older workers are much healthier than in the past, but also that the productivity of older works is as high as that of younger workers. For example, the number of errors an individual makes during work increases with age on average, but the errors of older workers are less severe than the ones of their younger counter parts. However, the productivity trajectories over age differ between occupational groups. While the productivity in repetitive jobs decreases with age, older workers are on average more productive when it comes to tasks like contract negotiations. With regard to advantages and disadvantages of early retirement, Professor Börsch-Supan argued that research mostly shows negative effects, especially when it comes to social inclusion and cognitive abilities of early retirees as compared to individuals who retire at the standard retirement age.

Panel debate:

In the panel debate that followed the keynotes, Professor Falkingham and Professor Börsch-Supan were joined by Mr Heinz Becker MEP, Ms Montserrat Mir Roca (Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation ETUC), Professor Helmut Kramer (Founding President of the Austrian Interdisciplinary Platform on Ageing), Mr Stecy Yghemonos  (Executive Director of Eurocarers), and moderator Dr Harald Wilkoszewski (Head of Population Europe’s Brussels Office). The panellists discussed in particular, which reforms are needed to facilitate healthy and active ageing and which role policy makers on the national and EU level, civil society organisations, companies, and individuals play. Highlights from the debate are presented below.

Professor Axel Börsch-Supan: Societies throughout Europe have still to adapt to longer life spans, in particular the institutions of care and family that are fundamental to allowing a good life even at very high ages. It is also clear that there are many ways to facilitate healthy, active ageing, depending on which age we look at specifically. Active ageing is a life-course project and there is no one single answer to it. What we do see, though, is that there are some core problems we need to address. For example, a lot of older people live in social isolation, which makes the prospect of reaching a high age not very attractive. More possibilities for volunteering could help here. A second core issue is that the transition from work to retirement has to be made much more flexible.

Professor Jane Falkingham OBE: One of the key questions in my eyes really is how we define old age. Most people actually underestimate their life expectancy, so the destiny of very long lives, to quote James Vaupel, is not really in the heads of people yet. However, individuals will need to know how they can and how they want to organise their lives when living to a 100 becomes the new norm. I am convinced that most people would like to engage in healthy ageing but do not have enough information. It is really difficult for them to look ahead. I do expect technology to play a more important role in our lives, e.g. when it comes to making it easier older for people to live their lives at home. I also think that we need to start and change our societal institutions and manage a redistribution of work along the life course. The biggest challenge, though, is that we need to change our lens, and look at our lives with a life-course perspective. Only then we will be able to discuss which social policies we need for a new, very long life course.

Heinz Becker MEP: I really would like to stress that I think living up to an age of 100 is absolutely desirable, also under current conditions. We know that there is a lot of medical and pharmaceutical progress and innovation, and that the phase of life at the very end gets less dramatic. Therefore I see no reason why we shouldn’t be able to master the challenge of active and healthy ageing. We must see, however, that healthy ageing already starts during childhood, so I also think that the life-course perspective is absolutely crucial. We need a better awareness of ageing in general and at all ages, which means: we need a lifetime healthy ageing concept, that focuses on prevention and more use of best practices. This also includes a much needed clear European master plan for work-life-family balance. I do not understand why national governments are not interested in that, because this question is also crucial to preparing our care systems. We know that children who move back home when parents retire to care for them are not the majority for a variety of reasons. There are some reforms being put forward, but the overall speed is too low. While the EU has no formal competence in social policy, we do have a distinct set of soft power tools and can nudge Member States in the right direction, as we did with the European Year of Active Ageing in 2012 or by country specific recommendations for national budgets.

Montserrat Mir Roca: When we look at the issue of healthy ageing, the central question for the European trade unions are the working conditions which differ to a large extent across job profiles. We still have a lot of inequalities going on, and that is a problem, because we know that good jobs mean good pensions mean good lives at old age. Good working conditions and good salaries are key to solve inequalities and collective bargaining is the instrument we need. I also think that migration will be a key topic for us when we look at ageing. Europe needs to be open and welcoming to migrants, not only because they will contribute to the pension systems, but also because they will benefit our societies. They also play an essential role in the crucial sector of care. A range of Member States already today rely heavily on foreign workers to sustain their care institutions, and I think we will see more of this in the future. The key challenge for healthy ageing also for me is to adopt a lifecycle approach to our discussions.

Professor Helmut Kramer: Active ageing is a crucial issue for our societies but also for each and one of us. We cannot discuss the societal level without including the individual perspective, because we on the one hand have a lot of variety within society; on the other hand many individuals are not yet prepared for the ageing society; the possibility of a very long life is not yet in their thinking, so we need to increasing the awareness of what an ageing society actual means. A very important questions for example could be: “What is your individual potential to cope with ageing?” And we all know that education plays a central role here, because it is the enabler for active ageing. The role of society and policy-making, and this is true for all levels from federal governments to local actors and NGOs, in my eyes is to set the right framework for successful long lives, and intergenerational fairness is at the core of it. I think our biggest challenge for the next 10 to 15 years will be to make sure that we have enough financial means to cope with our ageing population.

Stecy Yghemonos: To be frank, I do not think that under current conditions it is desirable to live until the age of 100. We know that the average life expectancy is about 80 years in Europe, but the average length of a healthy life is about 60 years. So we need to do a lot to close this gap or to adjust for the care needs that arise during a phase later in life where we will be dependent on others. In essence, though, we need to become more age-friendly, which also means to become more care-friendly. At the moment we are not prepared to welcome a growing ageing population, and my biggest concern here is in particular the huge physical and psychological impact of caring on carers themselves. Reforms are necessary so that individuals who have to care for a family member at older age are not left alone with their specific needs and problems. I think the EU could do a lot here, especially if the coordination and collaboration between the European Commission and the Member States becomes better. All actors need to push into the right direction to facilitate the necessary changes in our care systems, especially when it comes to good and flexible working conditions. Member States also need to invest more in formal care. What we have in front of us calls for a proper EU strategy on long-term care.

For more information about this event, please click here.

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