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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 July, 2004, 12:48 GMT 13:48 UK
Population earthquake hits Germany
By Paul Henley
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Kurt Seifert
In 10 years' time I will be dead and I can't change the future but I know it will get worse for old people.
Kurt Seifert

As a third of Germany's population heads towards old age the country is waking up to an impending pensions crisis.

"It always gives me a kick when I've managed a climb successfully," says Giesela Sander, who is 74.

She has just returned from a regular weekday outing to Berlin's Grunewald, where she scaled a vertical cliff-face 15 metres high in the rain.

She is dressed in sports gear and carrying hold-alls stuffed with specialist rock-climbing equipment.

"I think it's better to go climbing than to go to a restaurant or just sit in front of the television," says Wolfgang Bagger, 79, who accompanied her.

Their group is part of Germany's growing army of "active seniors" - old people with the time, spending power and energy to make the most of their retirement.

By the middle of this century, people in her age group will be in the majority.

The trouble is, Germany may no longer be able to afford them.

These pensioners know they may be the last of the financially fortunate.

"We are lucky to have been born a long time ago", says Kurt Seifert, 73.

"In 10 years' time I will be dead and I can't change the future but I know it will get worse for old people."

Demographic revolution

He is probably not wrong. All over Europe, a demographic revolution is under way.

By the middle of this century, more than half the population, it is predicted, will be over the age of 65. But in Germany, the changes may hit hardest.

The average state pension is double what it is in the UK. No wonder, perhaps, that Germans resolutely resist saving privately for their retirement.

I see our ageing population as a positive thing. Old people have a huge amount to contribute to society here
Mayor Klaus Petry

The government there is waking up to the prospect of its greying population putting an unbearable strain on public finances.

For the first time - and accompanied by a public outcry - pensions have been frozen and moves are afoot to shift the burden much further into the private sector.

The issue is regularly hitting the headlines in Germany. The country's best-selling book for many weeks this year has been Das Methusalem-Komplott (The Methuselah Conspiracy), a tirade against ageism and a bleak picture of the near future.

It says some regions are already in a sort of death spiral, with the population imploding, not just because so few babies are being born but also because young, qualified people are shipping out in search of the shrinking number of jobs.

The town of Wittenberge, in former East Germany between Berlin and Hamburg, is said to be the negative demographic role model for the Germany to come. The average age of the local population is 47.

Young people are an increasingly rare sight, most of the active workforce having abandoned the town when traditional industry (including the Singer sewing machine factory) closed down and job opportunities evaporated.

Staff at one of the old people's residential homes say theirs is the second-biggest employer.

The local Mayor, Klaus Petry, prefers to be optimistic: "I see our ageing population as a positive thing. Old people have a huge amount to contribute to society here.

"They're consumers, they go to the local theatre, the swimming pool."

Feeling the strain

But the predominance of the elderly is clearly beginning to take its toll.

Wittenberge is the future model of Germany's ageing population with one in three people over 60

Christian Berndt, one of the doctors running a predictably busy practice in the town centre, looks rattled by lack of younger patients on his books.

"We need the young ones too," he says, "the healthy ones. They pay their taxes but don't tend to draw on the system and be so demanding of expensive care, they way old people have to."

The net effect, he predicts, will be that, in future, doctors simply refuse to set up practice in areas like his simply because of the economics.

But for all their lack of youthful vigour, residents of Wittenberge tend not to be downbeat.

This has not been an easy place in which to spend the past 80 years; the times of manic inflation, the horrors of the second war, the post-war deprivations, the pressures of life under communism.

Even the frailest residents of Willi Kupas Retirement Home will say, with a smile on their faces, that their retirement has been, even is, the time of their lives, involving a spending power few of them ever previously experienced.

One pleasant legacy of the DDR and the communist expectation for women to work - almost every elderly woman in Wittenberge has built up a tidy contributions-based pension (compared to her traditional West German "Hausfrau" counterpart).

"We often tell people when they visit us here," says one barely mobile woman in her late 80s, "We're so lucky. We had a good time on our pension, lots of travel.

"Now we've got a lovely place to live, nice food, all of it free."

Her children, when they reach her age, may not be quite so contented with their lot.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents, Crossing Europe is broadcast on Thursday, 22 July, 2004 at 1100 BST. The programme was repeated on Monday, 26 July 2004, at 2030 BST.

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20 Jul 04 |  Crossing Continents
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