European Voice has discussed ageing only sporadically in the past year (“Food for thought”, 4-10 October 2012, “Out with the old, in with the new?”, 31 May-5 June 2012, and “Time to value migrants' contribution”, 7-13 June 2012). This is a reflection of a broader lack of policy debate at the EU level about ageing, even though Europe's demography difficulties are factors in many of Europe's policies.
Europe's birth rate has been below the replacement level for 40 years. The increase in the number of old people is leaving governments with a bigger bill, while the low birth rate means there are fewer taxpayers to foot the bill.
The effect is being felt across the economy. For example, the demand for labour in the European healthcare sector will double or even triple by 2050, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation development estimates. But at the moment, more workers are leaving the healthcare sector than are entering it.
Immigration has been presented as a solution. But, in time, immigrants adopt the behaviour of their host society. Europe will continue to age and become more fragile. With or without immigration, we face a sneaking demographic catastrophe. This sustainability gap should be a preoccupation of policymakers both in Brussels and in national capitals.
The European Commission's 2005 green paper on solidarity between the generations and its 2010 green paper on pensions did not delve deeply enough into the challenge. The Commission has now been asked by one of the letter-writers, Mitro Report, to produce a green paper specifically on a sustainable ageing policy, combined with measures to promote birth. The Commission says it has no plans to produce such a paper.
Nor is the issue being addressed adequately at the national level. In most EU states, policies concentrate on care for the elderly, and neglect how the population structure can be restored to health.
When asked how many children they would like, the answer of Europeans is normally higher than the actual birth rate. Studies have identified work pressure as the main cause of the gap. Other factors identified as influences on the birth rates are the level of financial transfers between generations and the length of maternity and paternity leave.
Set against Europe's structural population catastrophe, the current economic crisis in Europe is relatively insignificant – though, of course, the economic crisis is compounding the demographic crisis, because job insecurity is prompting couples to postpone having children.
An effective demographic policy should be based on the needs and objectives of individuals. It needs to reconcile work, education and family better.
But such debate about the detail of policy can be left for later. At this point, the issue for the EU is far simpler: it needs to accept that solutions to a Europe-wide problem ought to be sought at a European level as well as a national level.