Ageing society – myths and realities
A fact check by the European Observatory
VS – 07/2022
The ageing of society often has a negative
connotation in the public debate. The narrative of a conflict between the
generations often finds mention. Ageing is seen as a threat to the financial
viability of the welfare state and the healthcare system, requiring
far-reaching cuts in the social security system. However, these could only be
implemented to a limited extent or not at all due to the resistance of the
ever-growing group of older voters and the political pragmatism in democracies.
In a recent
study, the European Observatory questions whether these narratives can be
substantiated with facts and has examined three frequently mentioned statements
on the ageing society. Are these well-documented realities or just myths that
are repeated time and again?
The ageing society is a success story
At the outset, the authors emphasise that
the increase in life expectancy and the improved health status of older people,
in particular, is a great success of medical care, economic development as well
as education and social policy. This is a trend that applies to all European
countries. A closer look, however, shows that there are great differences in
life expectancy, health status, social security and the voting behaviour of
older people within Europe. The discussion about which societal adjustments are
necessary due to the ageing of society is again being held in all countries and
also at the European level.
Myth of health systems that can no longer be financed
A statement that often finds mention in the
public debate is that the ageing of society is leading to a sharp increase in
healthcare expenditure and that the healthcare system cannot be financed.
However, the authors find little empirical evidence to substantiate this.
According to the study, ageing is only responsible for comparatively small
increases in health expenditure. Also, the contributions of older people
through unpaid work in the field of care and voluntary work were usually not
taken into account in these considerations.
Myth of the selfish elderly
In the public discussion, it is often
assumed that the voting behaviour of older people is primarily oriented towards
the promised benefits for their generation. However, the authors note that
older voters, like all other age groups, differ in many ways according to
identity, ideology, income and other factors. Older people do not represent a
homogeneous block of voters. Nor do they automatically change their political
orientation with age.
Myth of politics pandering to older people
The proportion of older people in the
electorate is rising and in some countries, such as Germany, older people will
soon become the most important group of voters. Therefore, a common thesis is
that politics is increasingly aligning itself with the interests of older
people, especially also with additional promises of benefits.
The authors do not see sufficient evidence
for this. Instead, they emphasise that election programmes are complex. These
are based on values and political convictions. Voters' perceptions of politics
reflect interest groups, party and coalition politics, as well as the political
decision-makers' understanding of needs and constraints. This must be taken
into account when analysing election programmes. For example, if older people
in a country are particularly at risk of poverty and social exclusion and the
policy focuses on combating old-age poverty, then this can hardly be taken as
evidence of politics "pandering" to older people.
In summary, the authors advocate saying
goodbye to headline-grabbing myths. Instead, in the discussion about the
opportunities and risks of an ageing society, political measures in the sense
of win-win solutions should be in the foreground. A successful social and
health policy can only exist with all age groups and for all of them.