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In a society of longevity, seniors are more than a “silver economy”

Anne-Marie Guillemard
Anne-Marie Guillemard
Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Université de Paris-Cité
Key takeaways
  • Many countries, particularly in the OECD, are concerned about their ageing populations - a view that emphasises costs and negative effects.
  • The longevity revolution offers society resources, skills, and capacities that we must learn to optimise, as Northern European countries have done.
  • Public age management policies aimed at companies can improve the employment rate of older people by offering them real and sustainable prospects.
  • For the elderly, the issue of autonomy calls for flexible responses, in the form of baskets of services and differentiated pathways according to needs, with an emphasis on prevention.
  • The policies of the past, segmented by age and freezing status, will be replaced by life cycle policies, organising modulations according to needs, possibilities, and aspirations.

How will we live in an old­er world?

Anne-Marie Guille­mard. To answer this ques­tion, let’s go back to the idea behind it – age­ing. In Europe, Asia, and even Brazil, the age pyra­mid is chang­ing shape: the pro­por­tion of peo­ple over 65 is increas­ing, and the pro­por­tion of peo­ple over 80 is now sig­nif­i­cant. The trend con­tin­ues: chil­dren born today will have a good chance of being centenarians.

But when we talk about “age­ing” we only see the neg­a­tive effects and we miss the essen­tial point of the longevi­ty rev­o­lu­tion. Life expectan­cy at the age of 60, which in West­ern Europe remained vir­tu­al­ly unchanged between 1845 and 1945, has increased rapid­ly since the Sec­ond World War. In France it is now 28 years for women and 23 years for men. As such, we have entered a “long life society”.

So, let me rephrase: an old­er world? No: longer lives. It is not the same thing. But under­stand­ing this new real­i­ty is not easy. The first chal­lenge is to decon­struct rep­re­sen­ta­tions, to grasp the promis­es of this new world instead of pan­ick­ing about them.

First, longevi­ty is not a dis­abil­i­ty. It is the oppo­site: retired peo­ple are liv­ing longer and longer in good health. The ques­tion of loss of auton­o­my is aris­ing lat­er and lat­er. Sec­ond, con­sid­er­ing only the social cost of retirees obscures the con­tri­bu­tion they can make to soci­ety. Final­ly, the pro­mo­tion of the “sil­ver econ­o­my” con­tributes to dis­tort­ing the per­spec­tive by reduc­ing seniors to their pur­chas­ing power.

What is the basis for a new rep­re­sen­ta­tion and action strategy?

It will be based main­ly on two ele­ments. The first is to con­sid­er seniors as a resource, the sec­ond is to bet­ter take into account the diver­si­ty of sit­u­a­tions and needs at the same age, which inval­i­dates the pre-emi­nence of age-based man­age­ment of populations.

First­ly, longer life expectan­cy gives old­er peo­ple new resources that we must try to opti­mise for the ben­e­fit of soci­ety as a whole. In France in par­tic­u­lar, the obses­sion with age­ing and the reduc­tion of the risks and costs that it gen­er­ates has obscured the con­tri­bu­tions made by the progress of longevity.

Expe­ri­enced employ­ees can be an asset for com­pa­nies, pro­vid­ed that they know how to main­tain their skills. The skills of old­er peo­ple can also be expressed in infor­mal work or vol­un­tary work. They cre­ate val­ue for com­pa­nies and for the country.

The urgent need is not to reform pen­sions, but to make it attrac­tive and sus­tain­able to pro­long work­ing life in order to opti­mise the new capac­i­ties of old­er peo­ple for the ben­e­fit of all. This change of out­look and strat­e­gy is par­tic­u­lar­ly urgent in France, where the employ­ment rate of 60–64 year olds is the low­est of the OECD coun­tries, at 33% com­pared to 52% on aver­age and 70% in Swe­den. It would call for proac­tive poli­cies to sup­port and accom­pa­ny com­pa­nies to help them offer real and sus­tain­able work prospects to their employ­ees in the sec­ond half of their careers.

It is the forty-some­things who must be tar­get­ed if we want to have suc­cess­ful fifty-some­things and active six­ty-some­things. Every­one must be offered a future.

In North­ern Europe, coun­tries that have pro­longed work­ing life have pur­sued upstream poli­cies and invest­ed in employ­ees. It is the forty-some­things who must be tar­get­ed if we want to have suc­cess­ful fifty-some­things and active six­ty-some­things. Every­one must be offered a future.

Fin­land has made a con­sid­er­able effort in life­long learn­ing. In the 2000s, it set up an “age man­age­ment” pro­gramme for com­pa­nies and man­agers, offer­ing advice based on stud­ies. For exam­ple, when work­ing con­di­tions or the organ­i­sa­tion of work in a work­shop or office are improved to make them more suit­able for old­er peo­ple, the return on invest­ment can be dou­bled in terms of work productivity.

You men­tioned the need to break with a seg­ment­ed and fixed con­cep­tion of life stages and the cor­re­spond­ing policies?

The age-based man­age­ment of pop­u­la­tions is no longer adapt­ed to the new flex­i­ble and indi­vid­u­alised life paths that a long-liv­ing soci­ety has brought about. The three-stage life course of the indus­tri­al soci­ety: train­ing / employ­ment / retire­ment, has been dis­rupt­ed by the length­en­ing of life and the advent of a post-indus­tri­al soci­ety. The sequences of employ­ment, edu­ca­tion, fam­i­ly life and leisure are now com­bined in no par­tic­u­lar order at all ages.

Advanc­ing age has become a con­tin­u­ous process of self-con­struc­tion and recon­struc­tion through the tri­als and tribu­la­tions encoun­tered, which dif­fer from one indi­vid­ual to anoth­er. There­fore, in order to meet their needs, it is nec­es­sary to take into account not the age of the indi­vid­u­als but the diver­si­ty of their back­grounds. A 50-year-old senior cit­i­zen in late par­ent­hood does not have the same vision of retire­ment as some­one whose chil­dren are already married.

In 1945, when pen­sion schemes were intro­duced in many devel­oped coun­tries, every­one had a rough­ly iden­ti­cal life course. The main vari­able was the length of edu­ca­tion. But every­one moved at the same pace, with rel­a­tive­ly stan­dard chrono­log­i­cal ages.

Today, we must move towards a cho­sen retire­ment, with a rea­son­able min­i­mum age and incen­tives to con­tin­ue. Fin­land and Swe­den have abol­ished any legal cut-off age. The Finns have increased the employ­ment rate of 60–64 year olds while keep­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of leav­ing at 61 or 62.

Does the same log­ic apply to old age, where the issue of auton­o­my can catch up with us?

Yes: spe­cif­ic needs then arise. But some peo­ple are aware of them, oth­ers are not. And when they appear, it is not at the same age. Final­ly, they may call for very dif­fer­ent respons­es in terms of accom­mo­da­tion and asso­ci­at­ed services.

Here again, it is dif­fi­cult to respond to the diver­si­ty of sit­u­a­tions. Poli­cies cre­ate mono­lith­ic rights that open up at this or that age. Indi­vid­u­als focus on needs that will only con­cern them for a few years of their lives – the aver­age stay in an old people’s home is no more than three years. All this cre­ates rigid­i­ty and inad­e­quate respons­es when what is need­ed is flex­i­bil­i­ty and the abil­i­ty to choose from bas­kets of services.

On what basis should new poli­cies be organised?

We need to think of them as life cycle poli­cies, based on sev­er­al ele­ments.  The first is to put an end to poli­cies seg­ment­ed by age, by organ­is­ing mod­u­la­tions accord­ing to needs, pos­si­bil­i­ties, and aspirations.

The sec­ond ele­ment is to favour a pre­ven­tive rather than a cura­tive approach. Regard­ing the employ­a­bil­i­ty of “young” seniors, and the fragili­ty of the elder­ly (iso­la­tion, mal­nu­tri­tion), it is bet­ter to act upstream to be effec­tive. The length­en­ing of life means that we must give pri­or­i­ty to pre­ven­tion over cure.

The third ele­ment is the range of choic­es. The more we aspire to be able to gov­ern our lives, the more we need to open up life choic­es. This has a par­tic­u­lar impact on res­i­den­tial life, which should be made eas­i­er and more flu­id. Well-designed poli­cies would make it pos­si­ble to free up sav­ings that are cur­rent­ly locked up in prop­er­ty assets for fear of depen­den­cy, and to direct them towards pro­duc­tive invest­ments. Open­ing up choic­es for our seniors would ben­e­fit everyone.

Interview by Richard Robert

Contributors

Anne-Marie Guillemard

Anne-Marie Guillemard

Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Université de Paris-Cité

Anne-Marie Guillemard is an emeritus member of the Centre for the Study of Social Movements (EHESS), a member of the editorial board of Ageing and Society and an expert member of the Conseil d'Orientation des Retraites. She is a recognised specialist in international comparisons of social protection, pension systems and employment. Among her many books, we can mention Allongement de la vie. What challenges? Quelles politiques? (ed., with E. Mascova, La Découverte, 2017) and Social Policies and Citizenship: The Changing Landscape (ed., with A. Evers, Oxford University Press, 2013).

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