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Invest in the Young, they are a Precious Resource

Interview with OECD Analyst Harald Wilkoszewski
Copyright: Wavebreakmedia

Rising life expectancy, prospects of longer working lives and diminishing pension funds - most debates about demographic change seem to revolve around older people. But what about the younger generations, what are their prospects in Europe’s ageing societies? An interview with Harald Wilkoszewski, Analyst at the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) of the OECD’s Directorate for Education.


Population Europe (PE): What challenges do the younger generations face as a result of demographic change?

Harald Wilkoszewski (HW): If you look at the young today, they have a lot of guessing to do when looking into the future – their lives are already very different from the lives of their parents and their grandparents, and they will become increasingly more different. Everybody wants to know what is happening with his or her life, wants to plan, and that will become very difficult. Part of that is also due to demographic change because our life courses are changing so dramatically, we have much longer life spans. But not only that, we also live in more flexible structures, there are more childless people, there are more singles, there are new living arrangements, and so on. So it’s a highly dynamic environment that a young person is operating in on a personal level – which in my opinion is a very big challenge; and young people will have to prepare for that.

If we look at the political level, we have resources that are challenged, and that also affects young people, e.g. they will have to pay future pensions. But it’s not only money, it’s also time, because if there are more older people then more care is needed, which also affects young people again. This dynamic environment, together with the insecurity linked to changes in the labour market and the financial crisis, something that has been going on for a while now, this creates major challenges.

Another point is, if you look at the relation between the younger and the older generation, it is clearly also a question of influence and power. Here the challenge for young people would be to stay involved, to participate on the social level, but also on the political level, to know what is going on. Because a lot of things that will affect young people in the future, are decided now.

PE: Are there possible advantages for the future young, because there are fewer of them?

HW: There is this argument saying that this will be a big advantage when it comes to competition on the labour market. I think in a way it is, because if there are fewer people you have to compete with, that is good news. The likelihood that you get the good job you want or a promising position is higher. There could also be an advantage in terms of costs. The states could be tempted to say: there are fewer younger people so we will invest less in infrastructure. It has happened already in some regions in Europe because there is oversupply. But there is also an opportunity to invest even more in young people, because it’s not only a question of numbers, it’s also about what these people are able to do, how they are qualified. What we see in Europe and on the global labour market is a very high demand for a skilled labour force, so that is going to be the resource companies are fighting for. In essence: not many young people, who are under qualified, will derive any advantage from being related to smaller cohorts.

PE: What should young people do to prepare themselves for their future in ageing societies?

HW: If you look at certain countries, they are indeed struggling with parts of the economy because they have too few skilled people for the demand side. But that has also to do with political decisions; it’s not up to the individual. In general I would say it’s really education, education, education. On all levels – it’s not only about university degrees. Spain for example is now in the crisis rethinking its educational model and looking towards Germany. I really think education is THE topic because it will benefit all generations. If the young are better prepared, they will have better jobs, better opportunities, they will foster innovation and there will also be more resources to carry the burden of ageing societies.

PE: What are the responsibilities of the elderly towards the young generation?

HW: Clearly there are classic responsibilities within a family, helping each other, being there, providing resources, education and so on. But on a society level we have to differentiate, because old is not old, in terms of resources, power and possibilities. Especially the ones who are wealthy – and a lot of older people would be surprised to be called wealthy – but especially the wealthy ones, they need to acknowledge that and look very carefully at what they could share. It’s not a question of depriving them, but it’s a question of what they can do beyond the family level to help the country as such, and not only their own kin. Apart from financial contributions, I would really say that understanding and tolerance are needed from the older generations. Younger people today are facing different life courses, and I often have the impression that the understanding between the two sides is not always there. However, clearly there must be a balance between the two groups: you cannot look only at one of them, that is also why some countries talk about a “generational contract”. It has to be seen in a dynamic setting, really in a sort of discourse, and maybe it would be good for both sides to try to foster that discourse.

PE: Which political measures do you see?

HW: In my view there are three big questions for policy makers when it comes to demographic change.

First: what is generational justice? In a lot of countries there is not really a definition of that. The term is used very often but then it never materialises in the context of concrete political reforms. Some countries have established sustainability perspectives to see e.g. if a specific law is overburdening the young, but that’s sometimes very technical. It should be more about society: What do we need to change and what is everyone willing and able to contribute? That’s a discourse policy can facilitate and steer.

The second question would be: what is family? Again there is a huge variation across countries in terms of definitions, rights and so on. In essence, family has been a very classical concept for a very long time, which is certainly not valid anymore. A lot of countries need to rethink that concept, and it comes down to very hard figures in terms of benefits and rights for people, who are not married for example.

The third question is: How to cope with more transitions in life? The pattern is no longer: I’m young, I will study, I will find a job, I will have a family, I will work for 40 years and then I will retire and sit in my house. That is certainly a model, which is on the decline. We have many more transitions in the life course, which are connected both to the labour market and to family life. The question social policy has yet to answer is: How can we find an environment that includes these transitions? We need to make people feel less threatened, give them more awareness and then they would plan their life more courageously, instead of being anxious and maybe postponing necessary choices. These are the big topics about which we need a political discussion.
If we look at very concrete measurements, I would go back to education and the question of investment: Let’s not cut back costs and try to save money, but let’s invest in the young, because all generations will benefit from that.

PE: Are there any role model countries in Europe?

HW: The obvious candidates: the Nordic countries. The way they address societal issues and how they organise these differs a lot from other countries. Countries like Sweden and Denmark were e.g. also exposed to declining fertility rates, just like other countries. And how they addressed the issue was well ahead of other countries, who, decades later, are still stuck in the discussion of how to reconcile family life and work. I wouldn’t call it a role model but I would say it could give indications for other countries: that a discourse on this society level is possible. Very often in big states there is the tendency for the state not to interfere, especially when it comes to family. But I do think policy really can make a difference by facilitating a necessary discourse leading to concrete political reform – especially in light of demographic change and the challenges we have talked about.

Interview: Isabel Robles Salgado for Population Europe