The population of western Europe—presently most of the countries of western Europe are part of the European Union (EU)—grew strongly during the twentieth century, with the last major growth period occurring during the post war era and lasting into the 1960s. Following these years, fertility declined while life expectancy continued to rise. As elsewhere, the aging population of western Europe is the result of these two factors: a declining fertility and rising life expectancy. In fact, during the last decades of the twentieth century the fertility in western Europe declined to the lowest level on earth: 1.5 children per woman. Nevertheless, differences exist between these countries. In 1998, northern countries such as Iceland and Norway, with their high levels of female representation in the labor market and well-established provision for childcare, had higher levels of fertility (around 2.0) than southern countries like Spain and Italy (around 1.2).
By 2000 life expectancy became more equalized in western Europe than it had been in 1970. Especially in the countries of southern Europe, life expectancy for women had been much lower than in the northern countries. Between 1950 and 1993 more than fourteen years were added to the life expectancy of Portugese men, whereas in Sweden male life expectancy increased by little more than four years. In most western European countries life expectancy for women averages around eighty years, with the highest in France (81.5) and Spain (81), and the lowest in Denmark and Portugal (77.8). For men the average life expectancy at birth is around 74 years, with the highest found in Sweden and Greece (75.5 years), and the lowest in Portugal (70.6). But even within countries there are regional variations. For instance, in areas where older types of industrial production has prevailed for a long time, such as central England, northern France, and the Ruhr region of Germany, greater unemployment, poverty, environmental pollution, and unhealthy lifestyles have resulted in higher levels of morbidity, especially among men.
In most scenarios the proportion of older Europeans will grow considerably. In 2000, for every one hundred people between the ages of twenty and sixty there were anywhere from thirty to forty people age sixty or older, although that number is expected to rise to sixty or more persons over age sixty in the coming years, especially in the southern countries. However, the ratio of younger to older populations may be impacted by greater participation among older adults in the labor force, as a consequence of better health. Moreover, the results of immigration (immigration from outside Europe by relatively young people who participate in the labor force), which gained momentum in the last decades of the twentieth century, may have influenced the overall picture. While changes in dependency rates are statistically important, such information is often overly simplified, adding alarm to the complex debate about population aging.
One important phenomenon is the so-called feminization of old age in western Europe. On average, the category of oldest old (those age ninety-five or older) includes three women for every man; in some countries (France, Austria, Finland, Denmark, and the United Kingdom) there are five women for every man in this group. This phenomenon has important consequences for the financial security of European women in old age.
As the population of western Europe ages, more older people tend to live alone. As women generally live longer, surviving alone in old age will be the rule. In Europe’s southern countries, the percentage of older people living alone is much lower than in northern countries. However, in the southern countries there are clear differences between urban and rural regions; in the latter, family solidarity is stronger but also threatened by urbanization. According to the Eurobarometer Survey, most older people generally remain well integrated with their families and neighbors (Walker). Older people in need are provided with high levels of family care, especially from daughters and spouses. Older Europeans also care for the young: many grandparents care for their grandchildren and assist their own children. However, there is evidence that family ties will erode or become less clearly defined in the future, particularly since a greater number of older adults are childless.
Although living alone is not necessarily synonymous with social isolation, there is a greater vulnerability to problem situations. Many countries have developed initiatives designed to prevent social isolation, such as open day centers for older adults. In most western European countries, older adults remain active and maintain social contact with others through involvement in voluntary organizations.
Generally, there is a striking difference between high levels of social integration of the aged within informal relations (family, neighbors), on the one hand, and a strong social exclusion from the economic system, on the other. The economic realm of older Europeans appears to be largely limited to the consumer sector, with few opportunities for those who want or need to find employment.
Employment and retirement
In recent years, the fate of western Europe’s older workers has been determined not by age but by the dynamics of the labor market. Sharp declines in participation in the labor force among workers age fifty-five to sixty-four occurred during the 1970s and 1980s, with the sharpest reductions found in the Netherlands (to 45 percent) and France (to 43 percent). Interestingly, the exit of older workers from the labor market was more a result of an economic recession that led to a downsizing of the older working population than of changes in pension systems. Sometimes there were attempts to manipulate the welfare systems in order to find creative ways to downsize older employees—for example, by designating disabilities when none existed. Consequently, one observes a sharp and sudden increase in disability status during this period.
In many countries of western Europe the retirement systems have been changed from fixedage retirement to flexible retirement. However, this supposed flexibility did not translate into greater worker control over retirement, but simply mandated earlier retirement ages. Consequently, in western Europe today, outside the more informally organized agricultural sector, work is largely unavailable for men and women after the age of sixty-five. In 1999, the highest employment rates for men age sixty-five to sixty-nine were found in Portugal (32.2 percent) and Ireland (23.7 percent), and for women age sixty-five to sixty-nine the highest employment rates were also in Portugal (18.9 percent). Most of the other countries show much lower employment rates: the lowest rate for men and women in the same age category was found in France (3 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively) (Eurostat Labour Force Survey).
In industrial countries worldwide the financial position of unemployed older people depends on three factors: a basic pension and other social security income provided by the state; a supplementary occupational pension; and personal savings. The economic status of elderly people is the outcome of an interaction between the economic status they achieved during their working lives and the particular pension systems they depend on during retirement. Initially, most pension systems were based on the implicit model of the male head of the family, as a wage earner who would be working for forty or fifty years in the same job until retirement, thereafter enjoying old age with the same wife he married when he was young. As a result of this, people who deviate from this implicit cultural pattern often encounter severe problems. Such problems may arise for men who have changed employers and unknowingly built up only a fragmented pension, but typically the negative effects of the pension system fall on women, who traditionally engaged in activities of the domestic sphere, such as raising and educating children. Women often work in paid jobs for a relatively small part of their lives or have only part-time jobs. Consequently, many older women have not built a sufficient pension. Paradoxically, a system that was constructed to prevent poverty in old age has produced specific categories of poor older people. This gender-based inequality is widespread in western Europe. According to the Eurobarometer Survey only the Scandinavian countries, especially Denmark, have successfully evaded this feminization of poverty in old age through universal flat-rate pensions that are regarded as a right of citizenship regardless of one’s employment record.
The European Observatory on Ageing and Older People has indicated that there are four main trends in the living standards and pension policies of European Union (EU) countries (see Walker and Maltby):
- Living standards of older people have generally been rising in recent years.
- There are wide variations between the different countries of the EU concerning the level of protection that pension schemes provide to retired people.
- Within the older population, the gap in living standards is widening between recently retired, predominantly male members of higher social classes, with a long record of secure employment, on the one hand, and a considerably (at least five times) larger group, many of whom are likely to be women and older than the affluent group, on the other hand. There is an extreme polarization in pensioners’ living standards, especially in the United Kingdom.
- There is a continuing problem of poverty among older people, with considerable differences between the relative sizes of these minorities compared to the total population.
Although a clear definition of poverty is difficult and relevant statistics on poverty and the aged are limited, the European Observatory has distinguished three groups of countries in the EU with low, median, and high poverty rates among their elderly population. Countries with low poverty rates (less than 10 percent) include Denmark, Germany (the former Federal Republic of Germany), Ireland, and Luxembourg. Median poverty rates (10–29 percent) were measured in Belgium, France, the northern part of Italy, and the Netherlands. High poverty rates (30 percent and more) were measured in Greece, Portugal, Spain, southern Italy, and the UK.
Health care, long-term care
As noted earlier, one of the causes of the aging population of western Europe is increased longevity: more people than ever before are experiencing a long and often healthy life. To place the sometimes alarming discussions about the financial consequences of population aging in perspective, it should be emphasized that many elderly people do not need more care than other adults. Although there is some variation among countries, relatively low percentages (around 5 percent) of people aged sixty to sixty-nine regard themselves as needing considerable care. Several inconclusive reports suggest, however, that over one-third of people age eighty and over will suffer from a longstanding illness or disability, but this means that the majority of these people do not regard themselves as disabled to any major extent. In this sense, aging in western Europe is not a grim prospect.
Nevertheless, for those responsible for policy decisions regarding care, the numbers remain daunting. The main problem appears to be that many of the existing ways to organize and supply care are not adequate to provide for the very different needs of aging people. Costs of care may be unnecessarily high because there is a lack of residential long-term care, efficient rehabilitation programs, or differentiated care in the community. A major problem of health care and long-term care for the aging population is limited flexibility; the solution to this problem is in the restructuring and recoordination of the relevant services.
The process of population aging in western Europe occurs alongside important changes in lifestyle, primary relationships, and employment. This change, often referred to as ‘‘late modernity’’ or ‘‘postmodernity,’’ has profound consequences for the supply of informal care for the aged because it affects the situation of female family members who have long served as the primary informal caregivers. Long-term caregiving remains the domain of women, although this is more true in the southern countries than in those of northern Europe. According to the Eurobarometer Survey, in the EU as a whole adult children (mainly daughters) were responsible for caring for older people in 40 percent of all cases. The ways in which this takes place differs considerably: in the southern countries more than one-third of these children were living in the same house as those for whom they provided care, whereas this occurred only seldomly in the Netherlands (2 percent) or in Denmark (4 percent).
The consequences of a postmodern aging society are manifold. As women leave the traditional patterns of family life, they are less available for caregiving or related tasks. These tasks will therefore be redistributed and renegotiated, and it remains an open question whether men will be able and willing to provide the same level of care to the elderly population. Moreover, as mobility increases, family members may live too far apart to provide such care. Finally, the changes in primary relations that have been going on for some decades will also affect the social situation of the aged population of the future. More older adults will live alone, will not have children, or may have a less intimate relationship with their children because of divorce, relocation, and so on.
Consequently, public and private forms of care will need to be restructured and developed in such a way that addresses such changes.
See also East Europe and Former USSR; Population Aging.
Eurostat Labour Force Survey. Luxembourg: Eurostat, 1994.
Kohli, M.; Rein, M.; Guillemard, A.-M.; and Gunsteren, H. V. Time for Retirement. Comparative Studies of Early Exit in the Labor Force. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Walker, A. Age and Attitudes—Main Results from a Eurobarometer Survey. Brussels: CEC, 1993.
Walker, A., and Maltby, T. Ageing Europe. Buckingham, U.K.: Open University Press, 1997.
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