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Wednesday, 11 September, 2002, 11:14 GMT 12:14 UK
Ageing: Europe's growing problem
According to the United Nations, ageing is increasingly becoming one of the most salient social, economic and demographic phenomena of our times.
In Europe, as in other continents of the world, the problem will be acute.
It is estimated that by 2050, the number of people over 60 in Europe will have doubled to 40% of the total population or 60% of the working age population.
Over the next few decades, the "baby boomers", the largest generation, born in the 1950s and 1960s, will start to retire.
The situation will be exacerbated by the very different expectations and life expectancy of their parents and grandparents.
Expectations of old age are not what they used to be.
This new scenario brings many opportunities, but there is also concern for how the system will cope.
This group of retirees will need healthcare, pensions, housing, and community care - and on a greater scale than ever.
At the same time, birth rates across Europe are falling.
This means there will be fewer younger people to drive the economy and pick up the growing welfare and social bills.
And social and public policy will have to be adjusted to meet those needs, whether it is in the form of greater tax contributions or by encouraging people to pay more into private pensions.
While legislation is necessary, experts say it will not change the deeply entrenched attitudes and practices towards older people.
Steen Langebaek, president of AGE, an organisation which aims to promote the interest of older people across Europe, believes that older people should be encouraged to study and work beyond retirement, whether through part-time work or on a voluntary basis.
"We don't want elderly people to be put on the shelf when they reach retirement, and forgotten.
"They should play an active role in society," he says.
Critics say much of the legislation is geared towards younger generations and has neglected the participation of older people in society.
"That means you actually forget the very large number of people in the older generations," says Mr Langebaek.
In some countries, such as the UK, while sex discrimination is banned, employers can still discriminate on the basis of age.
By 2020, it is estimated that 26% of the UK population will be over 60 years of age; by 2050 that figure will be rise to 38%.
But the system is already beginning to show signs of strain.
Recent research has found that more than 12 million workers do not have an occupational pension, with unskilled employees most likely to be missing out.
And millions of British workers will have to rely solely on state help when they retire.
At the same time, employers are closing generous final salary pension schemes, which have lessened dependency on the state.
Research for the CBI showed that 24% of firms closed their final salary scheme to new entrants in the past five years and a further 12% are considering doing the same.
Faced with a poorer, longer retirement, people are becoming increasingly exasperated and impatient with the failure to halt the closures.
This is now manifesting itself in strikes.
Gordon Lishman, director general of Age Concern England, speaking to BBC News Online just before the conference, said the government had to act - and provide a long-term solution.
"I think in broad terms the government's heart is in the right place, but I don't think they are addressing anything as thoroughly as the issues need.
"I think there is an opportunity to come up with a cross-party settlement to the pensions crisis, to get a new agreement that would stretch across the whole of society for income in retirement... that would last for another 70 years."
But, a cross-party solution and long-term action plan, which stretches way beyond the short-termism of politics, is a tall order.
In November 2000 the UK government adopted a European Directive which is aimed at combating age discrimination.
By 2006, the UK government must introduce legislation which will make it illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of age in a number of employment areas.
While this is welcomed, Age Concern believes legislation should cover much more than employment.
It is also concerned that the government may ignore the politically sensitive issue of outlawing discrimination for people over 65 - and whether people should have a choice of whether or not to retire.
"There is no doubt it was UK ministers that were holding back to implement the commitment on employment and wider discrimination," says Mr Lishman.
Mr Lishman hopes the conference will put pressure on the government.
"It ought to be an opportunity throughout the rest of European union to put on the pressure to bring our practice into line with the rest of Europe more rather than less quickly."
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