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.