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Policy Insights

What Links Goethe, Swift and Washington to Us

New insights into the future of an ageing society
Source: stevanovicigor

Between 1817 and 1829, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published his novella The Man of Fifty. It tells the story of the somewhat painful experience of growing old and grey, and the absurdities the relationships between old and young can sometimes take; or, as Jonathan Swift (who died shortly before Goethe was born, at the age of 77) ironically stated: "Every man desires to live long; but no man would like to be old."

Germany will soon grow "older" and "greyer": According to the latest numbers from the German statistical office as of 2015, life expectancy at birth is about 78 for males and 83 for females. It is to be expected that advances, e.g. in healthcare, nutrition and environmental protection, will lead to further increases in life expectancy, even at the rate of six hours per day on average, which Jim Oeppen and James W. Vaupel calculated in 2002 in their widely-received Science article. Furthermore, in the course of the next two decades, the last cohorts of the baby boomer generation will approach retirement age. In the 2030s, a not so far-off future, it is estimated that about a third of the German population will be older than 65 years. Demographers have made clear that neither a new baby boom nor massive immigration (at least under realistic assumptions) would prevent population ageing.

But is it really a "destiny" that we cannot turn into something positive? The Green Book Ageing Society. How "new ageing" will change our lives presents the most recent research evidence on the situation in Germany to a broader public, describes general trends in population developments and suggests potential policy responses. Life expectancy still differs between males and females, not just because of biological factors (genes, hormones etc.), but also due to social and behavioural factors (such as educational attainment, risk propensity or healthcare utilisation). Better understanding of the interrelationship between these factors and gender-targeted health campaigns might help advance life expectancy, according to Demographer Anna Oksuyzan. Psychologist Ursula Staudinger points out that we can do a lot in our daily life and at work to keep our mental fitness: Besides education and training, staying active and "on the move" leads to better cognitive performance at older ages and the capacity to compensate for the negative effects of ageing. This increases the chance of staying in the labour force longer and living independently longer. Economist Christian Hunkler shows that compensatory effects work even in physically and mentally demanding branches of the economy (like assembly-line truck production or financial services), and age-related experience matters in terms of team productivity, e.g. in challenging situations and by preventing expensive failures. New methods, such as National Transfer Accounts, allow for more precise estimates of the public and private transfers and how we can ensure that the periods in the life course where consumption is compensated for by one’s own income can be prolonged, as Demographer Fanny Kluge shows. After the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, and until very recently, during the coalition negotiations following the German elections, the question of adequate participation of the younger generation in decision-making about challenges affecting their own future was widely discussed. This is an important feature particularly in an ageing society such as Germany, where the recent economic stability might have allowed society to avoid confrontational debates about how to fairly divide resources between the generations, as Political Scientist Harald Wilkoszewski argues.

These are only a few findings in the Green Book that show there is room for optimism, but also show there is still great need for policy action. The step-by-step increase of the age of retirement to age 67 for those born in 1964 (after paying into the pension system for 45 years, however, it is possible to enter into retirement between the ages 63 and 65 without any penalties, depending on one’s cohort), was only a first step based on the age composition of  the population. Currently, it is being discussed that a further increase in life expectancy should also lead to a longer working life. For example, based on a formula suggested by retirement expert Axel Börsch-Supan, beginning in 2030, an increase of an additional two years of life expectancy would lead to a one-year increase in the retirement age. Policymakers are also trying to better exploit the labour market potential in order to counteract the labour shortage due to the age composition of the population. First, this refers to the question, how people can remain working longer; one way is through a campaign against leaving the labour market early and against age discrimination, and another way is through the promotion of the further development of assistance and training systems for older workers in companies, as put forth by Wenke Apt in her Green Book article. Second, Germany is still lagging far behind in women’s labour market participation. In addition to incentives for both parents to participate in raising their children and to facilitate part-time work, there is, for example, the legal right to a place in a care facility that starts at the child's first year of life. However, it is still difficult to realize this entitlement, especially in highly-populated areas. In terms of the balance between job and family, the focus is leaning more towards the balance between career and family, since women are still less in positions of leadership than men. Third, the majority of parties in the current legislative period are calling for an immigration law, which will make the immigration of high-qualified workers more efficient, in order to increase the size of the labour force.

Another major political field of action is the question of how we can ensure that, as urbanisation progresses, people in less central areas are also socially secured and provided good medical care. The expansion of the broadband network, which make it possible for an increased use of digital work spaces and e-health, could be an answer. However, policymakers are also trying to ensure that families have sufficient opportunities to meet their basic needs by increasing financial support for rural areas, in particular for small and medium-sized enterprises that are developing their structures, and by decentralising government functions (lower and medium-size authorities, universities). Policymakers are also concerned about the future of care, which is still mainly carried out in private households and by family members, and therefore, requires adequate financial resources.

The Green Book shows: Decision-makers in politics, economics and society should continue to make it a goal to ensure that people find conditions at work, in their places of residence in the city and country and in their families that enable them to respond flexibly to the challenges of an ageing society. But are individuals ready to jump on the train towards an ageing society even if it is about to leave the station? A lot depends on our perceptions and guestimates about our own future. Longer lives, postponed family formation, more diverse family structures, increasing mobility, the need for life-long learning and the growing demand to extend labour force participation are changing the distribution of time spent in different phases. With new life course strategies, we might be able to cope with the costs of an ageing society, caused by a smaller working-age population and higher costs within the pension and healthcare system. Even if this cannot be generalised and some branches might not allow for staying longer in the workforce, and even if old age health decline might be a pain – evidence suggests that there is much more potential and flexibility at the individual level than we usually would expect.

In 1783, another contemporary of Goethe, George Washington, stepped down as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army after the War of Independence had come to an end. Since most of the males in his family died around the age of 50, Washington, born in 1732, expected to face the very last years of his life. One year later, he bid farewell to his wartime comrade, Marquis de Lafayette, who was visiting him in Mount Vernon, as if it was one of the last moments they would ever see each other. But as we know, Washington changed his mind, since five years later he became the first President of the United States. He died after a second term as President, ten years later, at age 67.

Of course, not everyone can go through life like Washington. But perceptions matter, and it is time to start revising our ideas about our lives at old age.



  • Ellis, Joseph J. (2004, German ed. 2005, paperback 2017): His Excellency: George Washington.
  • Falkingham, Jane C., Héran, François & James W. Vaupel (2011): Europe’s citizen should have a choice. Toward a new policy of life-course flexibility. Population & Policy Compact 11.
  • Oeppen, Jim, Vaupel, James W. (2002): Broken Limits to Life Expectancy. Science 296(5570): 1029-1031.
  • Swift, Jonathan (1706): Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting.
  • Vaupel, James W. & Andreas Edel (Eds.) (2017, Engl. ed. 2018): Green Book Ageing Society. How "new ageing" will change our lives. Population Europe Discussion Paper No. 6.
  • von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang (1817/1829, Engl. ed. 2004): The Man of Fifty.


The author would like to thank the German Insurance Association (Gesamtverband der Deutschen Versicherungswirtschaft e. V.), that financially supported the publication of the Green Book in context of the initiative "7 years longer" ( Parts of this article have been published also in Italian language in Formiche 134, March 2018, 32 f.