Welcome to the super-age !

In a couple of weeks, Eurostat will publish the update of its European population structure and ageing analysis. Eurozone will then enter in the trendy club of “super-aged” societies, according to the definition commonly used by the United Nations (more than 20% of citizens aged 65 or older).

It’s Japan, which became the first super-aged country in 2006, followed after a few years by six European countries. By 2020, the world will have 13 super-aged countries, mostly in Europe, and by 2030, this number will reach 34, including Hong Kong, Korea, the US and the UK.

Ageing is not just a developed-world problem, as it is generally believed. Many emerging markets are already classified as ageing (more than 14% of citizens aged 65 or older). And some of them experiment rapidly deteriorating demographics, sometimes more rapidly than in developed economies.

Coming back to super-age, the landscape today is as follows (european country figures being supposed to be updated in June 2017)

Country % of citizens aged 65 or older
Japan 27.3
Italy 22
Greece 21.3
Germany 21.1
Portugal 20.7
Finland 20.5
Bulgaria 20.4
Euro area (19 countries) 19.9
Sweden  19.8
Latvia  19.6
European Union (27 countries)  19.2
Croatia  19.2
Estonia 19
Lithuania 19
Malta 19
Serbia 19

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The economic impacts of ageing are well known and essentially relate to the increase in the “dependency ratio” : if the retirement age remains fixed, and the life expectancy increases, there are relatively more people claiming pension benefits and less people working and paying income taxes. It places a higher burden on the shrinking working population whatever the way – private or public – wealth is redistributed between the generations.

One could cynically argue that the correlated declining birth rate also means a smaller number of young people, who require education and pay little, if any, taxes. But actually, the net cost of retired people is greater than the net cost of young people under 18.

It’s why the equation can only be solved by three different ways. You can alternatively or cumulatively :

  • increase the retirement age (under the condition you deal fairly with those workers who had hard working conditions during their life) ;
  • increase the productivity of working population, which implies investing in education before and during the working life, creating an ecosystem helping innovation, including social one, and addressing the issue of unemployment in those countries suffering of it ;
  • rely on immigration, which is primarily of people of working age, but immigration has become increasingly unpopular in developed countries, with potentially dangerous political effects. It’s true in Japan too, a society strongly attached to its cultural coherence.

Beyond government responses in terms of public policy, the way Japanese society deals with the question of ageing is worth looking at.

I had yesterday evening a dinner with a friend of mine for more than thirty years now, who lives in Yokohama : she explained me how she was engaged with her local community to try to give concrete responses to the challenge of the super-age in her city.

Japan NGO Council on Ageing (JANCA) proposes a few basic principles, which should inspire any public policy related to aged persons. They call it a “Charter for Older Persons” :

  • individual dignity of older persons shall be as much respected as that of other generations ;
  • it is essential that older persons enjoy active lives, which implies that the society is able to utilize older persons’ abilities ;
  • in order to create a comfortable society for all generations, older persons shall utilize their experiences and actively participate in activities that benefit a society, including social welfare, environmental improvement, community development, teaching culture and international exchange, while communicating with younger generations ;
  • older persons shall work to maintain their own physical function so that they can fulfil their lives in a local community (which implies the development of health centers and health promotion networks) ;
  • in order to create a society where people can live in peace regardless of their physical and social abilities, it is recommended that building houses and communities without barrier become an important theme in public works ;
  • security systems, such as pension, health care and long-term care must be built in a comprehensive manner based on a spirit of mutual assistance, while working to ensure fair burden and efficient operation and not to lose vitality of society as a whole ; the service recipients under these systems must bear a portion of the expenses to the extent possible and appropriate, while their right to self- determination must be respected as much as possible ;
  • it is recommended that lifelong learning systems be developed in order to support older persons’ diverse livings ; moreover, systems must be developed so that older persons’ experiences and wisdom can be utilized for education of children and youth.

These principles clearly echo the soft, peaceful and benevolent Japanese society, and its deep respect of older generations. But they can be a source of inspiration in our countries too.

It’s never easy to talk about ageing, because we necessarily think of ours. Let me then remind these words of Shimon Peres, the former Israeli Prime Minister : « I do my best to be as young as my dreams, but more importantly not as old as my story ».

Welcome to a super-aged society, as young as its dreams !


Iconography : Visitors at the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, May 9th 2017, personal collection.


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