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On the relativity of age(ing) and demographic change

Social scientist Bernd Marin about life expectancy and a collectively younger society

28. January 2021
Magazine > Voices > On the relativity of age(ing) and demographic change

Longevity – the continual lengthening of life expectancy that has been occurring without interruption for some 200 years, making it unprecedented in human history – is one of the most welcome achievements of the modern age. Social scientist Bernd Marin asks how it is possible that we are getting individually older but collectively younger, and how a poor country of emigration became a rich country of immigration.

Although longevity and ageing are connected, they also differ: like all Austrians, the Viennese are getting older; yet while Austria is ageing, Vienna has been getting younger for decades – as a result of immigration, which is causing the median age to decline. Longevity can be a boon for young countries like China, Turkey and Albania, or for old countries like Japan, France, Spain and Sweden. However, long-living societies with low birth rates such as Austria and Italy are ageing much faster than countries with high birth rates, like Israel/Palestine.

In their work around the concept of “prospective ageing”, the demographer Sergei Scherbov and the economist Warren Sanderson have developed ground-breaking new definitions and measures of ageing. Their dynamic concept considers – in contrast to the misleading conventional chronological measures of age – the factors of health, mortality, probabilities of survival, cognitive and working capacities, and life patterns. Based on the traditional measure of the share of people over 65 in a population, countries such as France, the UK and Austria have been “ageing” for centuries. If, however, “old” is applied to those who have 15 years or fewer to live, then EU countries have been getting younger for many decades.

The theory of relativity in age and ageing is a scientific revolution that has yet to reach all economists or any politicians. Yet the idea behind it is quite simple: “young” and “old” are neither independent of space and time, nor of concepts and objective measurements of age, nor of subjective perceptions. Because they have longer life expectancies (though to very different degrees), women everywhere are always younger than men of the same age; in Russia and Ukraine, they are up to more than a decade younger than men of the same age, but they also become “old” a decade before their counterparts in France, Switzerland, Cyprus and Israel.

At the age of 70, Mick Jagger was objectively – i.e., based on his remaining life expectancy – “younger” than Goethe was at 50 (“Weimar greets the venerable old man”) or Mozart at 35. Mozart died young, but he lived longer than the life expectancy of the time, which was under 30. When she was born, my grandmother had a life expectancy of 46 years, the same amount of time that today’s 40-year-olds have ahead of them – a kind of rebirth in middle age. In Kreisky’s day, the retirement age was between 62 and 66, which would equate to between 70 and 74 today. In reality, the average age today is about 60.

These scientific findings have huge practical implications for the entire social system. If one – rightly – takes for granted that value is protected via cost escalation clauses and indexation in all agreements, from rental contracts to collective bargaining agreements for wages and salaries to pensions, then one must also accept this automatism against fiscal drag from devaluation of taxpayers’ money or age inflation in the start of retirement.

Austria as a country of immigration

Starting in the 1960s, Austria moved from being a poor country of emigration to a rich country of immigration. Politicians ignored this for decades. Immigration became a taboo subject and carelessly labelled as undesirable – with some toxic consequences.

But immigration has long since become undeniable and irreversible. It predominantly offers opportunities, though it is not without risks. Although Austria wouldn’t die out without immigration, it would shrink dangerously. The labour market alone would be facing a shortfall of almost 1.5 million people of working age by 2050. In the period since 1961, immigration minus emigration has caused the population to grow by 1.2 million people (an average of 21,500 people per year). Today, 1.8 million people with a migrant background live in Austria – that’s 21% of the total population.[1]

“Replacement migration” is the term used by the United Nations Development Programme to describe the level of immigration that a country needs to curb the ageing processes caused by low fertility and mortality, and to stop the threat of population decline. Heinz Fassmann and Marik-Lebeck (2016) worked out that keeping the Austrian population stable would require annual net immigration of 21,600 up to 2050 – which is almost exactly equal to actual net migration since 1960. However, they also found that to maintain the necessary share of working-age people, the immigration rate needs to be twice as high as it currently is – i.e., 44,000 net. And a stable old-age dependency ratio (the ratio of retired people to those of working age) would require annual net immigration of 118,000 up to 2020 and then 225,000 up to 2030! That’s five to ten times higher than current net levels. This would probably be unacceptable from a societal perspective in the short term, and ineffective in the long term.

Is replacement migration the solution?

In addition to a stable level of net immigration, there will therefore also be a need for larger reforms on the labour market and in the pension system. Without a considerable increase in gainful activity, replacement migration alone will not come anywhere near to solving the challenges of financing pensions. It can buy time to postpone reforms, but it cannot replace them. Immigration should – as is the case in Canada, for example – primarily function via the labour market (and not via family reunification, marriage or unmanageable refugee flows) and chiefly attract qualified professionals. It should be performance-oriented and needs-based, prevent purely poverty-driven immigration and welfare tourism as far as possible, and ensure social integration.

Europe's Futures

Europe is living through its most dramatic and challenging period since World War II. The European project is at stake and its liberal democracy is being challenged from both inside and outside. There is an urgent need from all quarters of state and non-state actors to address the burning problems, both to buttress what has been painstakingly achieved through the political peace project.

From 2018 to 2021, each year six to eight leading European experts are taking up engagement as Europe’s Futures fellows. They create a platform of voices presenting ideas for action whose goal is to reinforce and project forward a vision and reality of Europe. Europe’s Futures is an endeavour based on in-depth research, concrete policy proposals, and encounters with state and civil society actors, public opinion and media.

Uncontrolled immigration (at the height of the refugee arrivals in 2015, it stood at 84%) carries major risks. However, due to the freedom of establishment in the EU (which was responsible for 43% of the immigration) and unforeseeable wars and waves of refugees (which accounted for a total of 41% of arrivals in 2015), this cannot be ruled out. Yet no one can predict crises and (civil) wars such as those that occurred in 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslovakia, 1980 in Poland, 1991 in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1994 in Chechnya, and those that came after 2004 in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and various countries throughout Africa.

Besides managing humanitarian obligations towards asylum seekers, for which Austria is absolutely a global magnet, Austria’s labour market policies for third countries (e.g., a reform of the Red-White-Red card for key workers) and “gentle” steering within the EU therefore also have an important role to play.

In the 2030s, for instance, when almost a million Austrians are over 80 and the number of people entitled to pensions rises another million to reach three million, thousands and thousands of additional nurses will have to be trained and recruited. An entirely impractical state of affairs would be if, as in 2016, not even 0.6% of all immigrants are key workers and every Red-White-Red cardholder brings 11.5 family members into the country.

Here, too, we need a paradigm shift: away from low-skilled “guestworker” immigration and towards a global talent search. In order to attract knowledge workers, creative talents, researchers, experts, in-demand professionals, and the headquarters of international companies and institutions, “amenities” such as a high quality of life and nature; cultural, tourist, sport and leisure activities; and excellent education and healthcare systems are becoming increasingly important. Competition between business locations will become amenity migration.

Yet the OECD Indicators of Talent Attractiveness for 2019 show that Austria is only moderately attractive to highly skilled workers, students and entrepreneurs from abroad: it ranks just 11th out of 35 OECD countries. Globally, the most attractive countries are Canada and New Zealand (both long-standing countries of immigration), then Switzerland, followed by Sweden, Norway and Germany. As a sustainable high-performance location with a welfare society, Austria still needs to learn amenity migration.

[1] In 2016, the share of non-naturalised foreigners in the population was, at 17.4% (1961: 1.4%) one of the highest in Europe and the world. However, in addition to traditional “guestworker” groups from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, free movement within the EU also primarily brings Germans, Romanians, Hungarians and Poles to Austria. The freedom of establishment within the EU means that, as well as seeking jobs, people also come to Austria for education, marriage, family reunification and welfare tourism, among other reasons.

Original in German. First published in the IWMpost No. 124 (Autumn/Winter 2019). The article was produced within the framework of the Europe’s Futures project.
Tranlation into English by Jen Metcalf.

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