The Commission’s new Green Paper on Ageing needs a modern viewpoint

19.02.2021

In his new blog TELA’s Public Advocacy Manager Janne Pelkonen comments on demographic trends and the Commission’s Green Paper on Ageing. Pelkonen’s key message is that European countries face common challenges in demographics and it should be possible to discuss demographic objectives and adaptation at EU level, even if individual policy measures fall within the jurisdiction of Member States. The next steps following the consultations on the Green Paper should focus on the birth rate and more active support for national population policies.

Janne Pelkonen
Janne Pelkonen writes in his blog about the Finnish Family Federation’s report: “It’s a good example of a modern population policy framework: it focuses on birth rates, immigration, health, ageing, migration and ecologically sustainable demographic trends.”

The attention paid by the von der Leyen Commission to population ageing is much needed in EU policy, but the Commission’s new Green Paper takes too narrow and reactive a view on the population issue. The Population Policy Programme of the Family Federation of Finland (2020) would serve as a good model for a sustainable and more multidimensional approach to the theme. What’s more, the Green Paper contains few new perspectives regarding pension policy.

Demographic change is seldom discussed at EU level from the viewpoint of population policy, i.e. the factors and actions affecting it. The European Commission produces a large number of population statistics with the view of stimulating the debate on structural reforms, for example in pension systems. The von der Leyen Commission has raised ageing as an important theme. In its activities, the Commission has linked the issue of population to the development of democracy.

Underlying the link to democracy is the idea that ageing has various economic and cultural impacts, for example in rural and urban areas, which, if accentuated, could lead to exclusion and radicalisation. Underlying the ‘yellow vest’ protests seen in France was in part a spirit of rebellion fuelled by regional inequality.

In January, the Commission launched a public consultation on the Green Paper on Ageing. A statistical report laying the groundwork for the theme was published last year. Population policy is not a completely new territorial conquest at EU level, as already in 2006 the Commission launched an initiative concerning the future of Europe’s population. The effects of ageing are currently monitored regularly through EU statistical reports (e.g. Ageing report).

Why doesn’t anyone dare to discuss the birth rate anymore?

The birth rate fails to exceed replacement level fertility in any Member State (approximately 2.1 children/woman). The one-child policy previously familiar in China has almost been achieved in Eastern European countries as well as in Southern Europe. Over the past ten years, Finland, which represents the Nordic countries, has slipped from its previous reference group with its birth rate of 1.37 (2020).

On the basis of the Green Paper and the previous Demographic Report, it can be said that the Commission’s initiative takes both a reactive and a fateful view of the lopsided demographic trend at this stage. With regard to demographic factors, ignoring the birth rate has certainly not happened by accident. Instead, the regional effects of ageing within and between countries are clearly visible, which may indicate the future direction of EU money.

At Member State level, the classic dividing line is drawn between ‘pronatalists’, i.e. countries that have a positive attitude to higher birth rates, and ‘antinatalists’ that curb births. Does exclusion of the birth rate from the initiative mean that the Commission is ‘ignorenatalist’?

Immigration is hardly addressed either, but it is at least mentioned early on in the Green Paper. The Commission’s caution is understandable in the context of immigration, which otherwise follows its own path in EU-level decision-making, but there is no reason to treat birth rates as cautiously.

Hopefully the reason behind the silence is not that population policy is considered old-fashioned or authoritarian. The population issue is, of course, a matter within the jurisdiction of each Member State. However, the EU also has much soft power that it could use, for example, in the annual European Semester cycle on economic and employment policy. Highlighting the importance of birth rates was not a problem in 2006, when the first Barroso Commission addressed the population issue.

Modern population policy is diverse and sustainable

Last year, the Family Federation of Finland published an analysis and an introduction to discussion of Finland’s population structure in the future. The Population Policy Programme report (2020) brings together a polyphonic group of researchers to consider objectives and possible solutions from positive angles.

In its report, the Family Federation states that demographic trends should be considered holistically, with the aim of striking a balance between human, ecological and economic sustainability. From these points of view, population policy is a policy segment of the future when it is updated in the spirit of the times.

In Finland, too, young adults’ hopes to have children are much higher than the actual birth rates, indicating that it may be possible to influence the trend.

It is wrong to exclude essential aspects of population policy. The Family Federation’s report, now available also in English, is a good example of a modern population policy framework: it focuses on birth rates, immigration, health, ageing, migration and ecologically sustainable demographic trends.

In recent years, the EU has been strongly committed to the global 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The population issue is not separate from this context. Ecologically sustainable parenting builds a bridge between daily human life and climate goals. People’s rights and opportunities to start a family are also aspects of life EU citizens should have as part of the Agenda 30 goals.

The Commission’s pension policy is like a broken record

The views on blocking early retirement routes and promoting supplementary pensions, as set out in the Green Paper, represent the long-range pension policy at EU level and are regrettably narrow. They do not take vulnerable population groups in the labour market into account in the best possible way. The pension theme includes jurisdictional restrictions at EU level.

Over the last ten years, Member States have implemented many reforms to tackle increased life expectancy, for example by linking the retirement age to life expectancy trends. The Finnish statutory earnings-related pension model can be seen as an example of successful automatic adjustment mechanisms that regulate the level of pensions and flexible retirement ages. However, small deviations from the trend have been observed in EU countries even before the corona crisis, as early retirement routes have been reintroduced anew in some countries.

The next steps following the consultations on the Green Paper should unbiasedly focus on promoting the birth rate and on more active support for national population policies in EU countries. Attention should also be paid to identifying successful national pronatalist policy options. In Finland, too, young adults’ hopes to have children are much higher than the actual birth rates, indicating that it may be possible to influence the trend. In the long run, a healthier demographic structure would support both the number of working-age people in relation to people at pensionable age and the positive development of the productivity of work.

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The Family Federation’s press release on the report: Population policies for the 21st century – Finland as a case example