From issue to major issue, many in the UK will still look to the institutions of the EU for counsel and leadership amid these twisted times.
The sadness is therefore the greater that all the talent in the EC should produce this Green Paper on the subject of ageing – subtitled Fostering Solidarity and Responsibility Between Generations. For the piece is as trite as it is evasive. Mutatis mutandis and with little content that is really new, it could have been written in the late 20th century. Now one appreciates that the EC has limited powers of execution here and depends, whatever the virtues of its analysis, on the responsiveness and goodwill of Member States. But even then the grim absence of any political bite – the non-attack on the multiple shibboleths and platitudes that distort the business of ageing across the continent – sticks out like an abruptly snapped walking-stick. Initiatives like this are not worthy of the name. The official purpose of the Green Paper is to broker “a broad policy debate on ageing” – yes, the promise here is of yet more remorseless colloquy on a subject whose contours and whose consequences have been so well defined for so long. The point is no longer to interpret the grey world; the point is, as some old beardy-weirdy once said, to change it. It may tickle the tummies of Europe’s many age-focused think-tanks and lobbies to have one more big, self-validating seminar on which to chew. But it’s realism and ruthlessness we need now. The phenomenon of ageing in the Western world is over-researched and over-sentimentalised. It is time for some incision in the language, some chaff-free position-taking.
In no particular order:
Volunteering. The GP speaks favourably of the habit of those millions of grey Europeans who contribute to their communities by doing good works. But at the same time, the GP also references the financial poverty to which so many older people – specially as the long term impacts of coronavirus take root (sic) – are exposed. Of course, those dependent on state pensions should actively fear the future since those pensions are unlikely to be rendered more generous by any government in the decade to come. (See the, as it were, vehement uncertainty about the Triple Lock process in the UK). Therefore, it should be a declaratory policy objective to get more than 40% (sic) of the over-65s into paid employment as soon as; in some MS, the figure is currently barely 10%. If you have the health and space to work then you, the imminently septuagenarian, should take a job, earn money and pay taxes.
If this interferes with the current culture of volunteering then so be it. The ability of the state, any state, to sustain public pension spend is, after all, dependent on a workforce population that is maximised. The sometime accountant, still able, should agree to stack groceries on delivery vans for 25 hours per week. The long since retired teacher should give teenage math lessons for Euros 20 per hour. The silver cook should let the grandchildren sort their own meals while she sells catering services to her village hall (birthdays, anniversaries, special occasions).
Tax and Entrepreneurship. The GP says “Public policy can support senior entrepreneurs by removing disincentives in tax” and talks of possible fiscal “incentives for employers to recruit older workers”. But these should not, as here, be throwaway remarks from bureaucratic maybe-dom. They should rather be fleshed into direct proposals which even hard-pressed governments could embrace. As it happens, we do not think the latter is a particularly attractive idea – but at least we hear a recognition this is a policy region which requires regime-change. Governments should be beating that drum, the drum that says we will (within the constraints we face) certainly invent new ways to help you BUT you must get off the sofa and reinvent household income. At issue here is the only “longevity dividend” that means something and makes sense. The grey population must be told that, specially post C19/with years of limited macro-economic growth lying ahead, it cannot afford to depend too much on the sensitivity and benevolence of the state.
The 70 year old has to have the same ambition, the same thrust, as the 20 year old. Some may deprecate the ideological retreat – the de-interventionism – which such a conclusion may imply. But like Hamlet provocatively says : why should the poor be flattered? Pensioner poverty of a scale we once thought eliminated from the major MS is Europe’s bad penny now. The Eurozone economy shrank by a scorching 8% in 2020. And while many actually deprecate out loud the pursuit of growth as a policy, it will be damned hard to find now even if all craved it. And without growth there are no good pensions, public or private, to be had.
Lifelong-Learning and The Longevity Dividend. Nobody is going to argue that skill acquisition throughout life is a bad idea. But the mantra of lifelong-learning – whose notional benefits are much vaunted in the GP – is no longer the right vibe for our times. Surviving/prospering as an over-65 in Europe as the century proceeds invites rather the concept of lifelong-adjustment. Millions of older Europeans are college-educated, can cope with quite serious complexity in their daily lives and generally can use a computer without electrocuting themselves. Meanwhile, governments everywhere have been generous in providing adult-courses and assistance with career-transition. Commercially-run classes are easy to find and not necessarily expensive. And so, if you wish to learn how to professionalise your approach to the annual tax return or build personal capacity as a potential tour-guide in your region or self-publish your first sci-fi thriller then getting such things achieved is… just a question of appetite and will.
Maintaining a skills portfolio which enhances your labour market access is totally the right thing to do. But lifelong-adjustment means that the sexagenarian learns ever more this very day about how to save and prudentially spend, how to convert those bearded root vegetables into gazpacho, how to sell DVDs from the 1980s for cash. Learning how to work/read Excel (if you do not already know) is an example of an activity which should be culturally elevated over, say, learning Italian for fun (because you like Tuscany for a holiday). Above all, the over-65 citizen – specifically as she/he approaches the world of job options – must be ready to shed all the expectations of rank and privilege and reward she/he may have enjoyed in previous careers. Nobody owes you a living. Nobody.
What to say about the tendentiously titled Silver Economy? This references the potential swell in demand for good/services which reflect the “specific needs and preferences of older people”. The reference is frequently made with the understated goal of beckoning consumer companies into the belief that they will miss a serious money-spinning opportunity if they fail to adjust to the reality of Europe’s ageing population.
Well, two things to say…. Firstly, it makes little sense to emphasize just how pauperised the over-65s are / will be (the GP makes much of the universal weakness in pension provision) and then tantalise businesses with the thought of all that pent-up demand among the greys for grey-shaped products. It is nonsensical to say (writing, let’s recall, in 2021) that “the silver economy is expected to grow by about 5% a year from EUR 3.7 trillion in 2015 to EUR 5.7 trillion in 2025”. No working model of effective demand can possibly validate this claim. Secondly and connectedly, the Silver Economy is a deeply patronising concept – for older Europeans are unlikely to want specially grey chocolate, grey wifi-connections, grey sex-toys, grey sportswear, grey novels…. whatever such concepts could possibly mean. In nobody’s lifetime is Wonder Woman or James Bond ever going to be played onscreen by an octogenarian. Moreover, if you start talking about a Silver Economy then you are a heartbeat away from calling on the market-place to supply faster stairlifts and cut-price, plastic-but-biodegradable replacement knees and pet robots to mimic the sensitivity of human care-home staff.
Sexagenarianism In The City. To its credit, the GP offers a useful focus on the special healthcare requirements of our ageing citizens amid both the shifting shape / character of our European cities and the actual physical distribution of those citizens in time and space across the continent. There is a simple question at work here : how can those needing frequent/constant/advanced medical support access it easily? This question has to be put in reflection of the grey population living either in remote regions or in inner cities. It is no good for the EC (as they do here) to provide interesting continental-wide charts entitled Driving time to the nearest health care facility. For healthcare agendas tend to expand with age (let’s all stop acting as if this is not the case!) and in this era many citizens in a growing number of locales are (by public policy and traffic suppression measures) being encouraged not to drive! In, for instance, the UK already, 70+ year olds must re-apply for a driving licence every three years; a similar system prevails in Spain and Finland. We can predict that as the number of nonagenarians increases then so the pressure will grow to keep them off the roads. It is a pity that the GP did not really address this area of enquiry – so vital to the culture of healthy living for elders in the 21st century .
One has to look only to Paris to see something of the extent to which public authorities wish to demobilise urban life – under the conceptual banner, for example, of the 15 Minute City. The drive is to prevail upon Europeans to walk or cycle but to avoid driving or using buses. This means that you are meant to buy groceries, see the dentist, get your hair trimmed, dine at a brasserie, report to the police-station (if you are on bail), enrol your kids, attend a theatre… all within 15 minutes of your home. That such an evolution will destabilize both commuting and tourism – to say nothing of macroeconomic expansion – is not our concern here. But one has to wonder just how much of a welcome the conurbations of the emergent future will provide to those with disabilities, those who need specialist cancer care, those whose mental wellbeing turns on regular loneliness-lifting visits from non-contiguous family. The GP insists that the “varying needs and capacities of older people should be taken into account in the organisation of urban infrastructure and services”. Well bravo – but so many cities are now being geared to deliver a life-culture putatively enjoyable only by the young and able-bodied. Just in case our point is misunderstood, we are not saying that sexa-septua-octos cannot or will not indeed prefer to cycle; we are suspecting that the city of the European future will anticipate that their personal mobility goals are rather cumbersome and might more readily be met in rural venues.
Other Assumptions Which Should Be Revisited/Re-Thought. European policy-wonks need to assess their language concerning productivity. Let’s face it, any deceleration in the rush to digitalise national economies keeps people in jobs and incomes for longer. It may, for example, suit retailers and their shareholders if deliveries can be streamlined and high-street outlets can be shed – an evolution given real momentum by the C-19 crisis. But jobs will get lost along the way.
Before the crisis broke, the EU itself put the number of European firms involved in retail at 3.6m, responsible in turn for around 10% of all employment. The crisis will have done its worst to dent these figures but also the search for super-efficiency and economies of scale – as promoted in so many policy documents – will shake out many more workers. Thus a major late-life job opportunity for over-65s will be stripped away. A better pursuit for the EC would have been to nominate those industries which will still need lots of people and discuss the policies (relating to competition, fiscality, state aids, market access…) which might protect them.
The Green Paper has a heart. It means well. But how the clichés cling and clog. We need a dialogue about ageing in a now very troubled economy that is as revolutionary as it is realistic. Let’s lift up every bit of discourse (is it still meaningful, for instance, to talk of the “dependency ratio”?) and weigh it for objectivity against the background of dark days ahead. Above all, that person who will be 65 tomorrow – well, let’s agree to put away the verbal soap and tell it to her like it is.