“The EU will, in the coming decades, face a number of challenges associated with an ageing society. There are three main factors that explain this trend: persistently low fertility rates, increasing life expectancy, and a baby-boom generation that will soon start to reach retirement age.” [EUROSTAT | 2010]
The first paragraph (bellow) of the population segment of ‘Europe in figures: Eurostat yearbook 2010’ can’t really start on a bleaker note. It points out that support for the elderly is bound to be an ever-increasing problem, as the ratio of over-65s to working-age people will reduce from 4:1 in 2008 to an estimated 2:1 in 2060. The need for elderly support is further compounded by the traditional break-up of the traditional family unit resulting in a larger percentage of older people living on their own.
There are two main components of population change: natural population change and net migration; one possible measure to counteract our ageing population is therefore to receive and integrate migrants. Yet there are various factors that promote a resistance to immigration. One cannot expect migrants to change their cultures and beliefs on entering a new country. Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and David Cameron have all recently made speeches saying that Multiculturalism has not worked and that migrants do not fully integrate within their cultural framework. There is also the historical notion that even the almighty Rome was brought down by rampant immigration – it is a common myth in Southern Europe to blame the fall of the Roman Empire on immigrants. Immigration-related scaremongering can be taken to an extremist view: some raise fears that rampant Muslim immigration may lead to Europe becoming an Islamic state in a few decades.
As immigration becomes a bigger issue, we can expect more Nationalist, or even Fascist, movements gaining popularity in various countries. For example, immigration is also an issue for EU hopefuls Finland – even though foreign citizens make up only 3.1% of the Finnish population, the rightist True Finns recently gained over 11% of the votes, becoming the third largest group in parliament. Yet the Finnish population is one of the most ageing populations in the world, and they too will face, in a few years’ time, that same problem of how to be able to support their old people.
It is understandable that most European countries are not really discussing the option of immigration and integration as solution to that problem. While my own small island of Malta may have a valid argument for not accepting migrants on the basis of its staggering population density, Malta is letting European countries and the USA ‘cherry pick’ illegal immigrants that are caught up on the island. Thus the immigrants that are not ‘selected’ to go in a foreign country tend to be less qualified, possibly denting the Maltese economy and adding woes on social benefits. Nevertheless, many Maltese seem to want to celebrate every time the US selects a few migrants to repatriate and local newspapers even consider it as a minor triumph. One could argue that this is a shortsighted view that denies Malta the skilled workers that we will need to support our economy.
Yet the individuals who celebrate losing an able workforce and turning immigration into a huge government expense, are the same people who ask how we can solve the impeding pension crisis which is affected, among other things, by an ageing population and an unskilled workforce.
Malta represents other countries in microcosm. The UK’s coalition government recently introduced a permanent cap on the admission of skilled migrants, despite warnings from economists and business leaders that it would harm growth. Immigration is not just a problem, it is also part of a solution to bigger problem.
Active ageing plan adopted
The European Commission approved a four-year action plan for the Active and Healthy Ageing European Innovation Partnership (EIP) which pilot was launched a year ago. In November 2011 the EIP Steering Group delivered a Strategic Implementation Plan identifying priority areas and specific actions, for public authorities, businesses and civil society. Demographic ageing is one of the most serious challenges for Europe and brighter prospects are not expected. Forecasts show that the number of Europeans aged 65 and over will almost double over the next 50 years.
Public spending on health are already 7.8% of GDP in the EU, and by 2060 it is expected to increase by 3% due to ageing. The Commission’s decision is a follow-up for implementation of the specific actions that will improve elderly citizens’ lives, help them to contribute to society as they grow older, and reduce pressure on health and care systems.
The Strategic Implementation Plan specifies five actions to be started this year. Concerted actions in at least 30 European regions have to test innovative ways to ensure patients follow their prescriptions. Also cooperation will be boosted to help prevent functional decline and frailty, with a particular focus on malnutrition. Among the actions is improvement of the uptake of interoperable ICT independent living solutions through global standards to help older people stay independent, mobile and active for longer.
We urge all stakeholders involved to contribute to our efforts and help us tackle the demographic transition head-on, said Vice President Neelie Kroes. Health Commissioner John Dalli pointed out that the Commission is determined to support the rapid implementation of the priority areas agreed by the EIP and has the ambition to achieve tangible results in the next two years.