West Europe's retirees begin to demand their 'rights'
The elderly in Western Europe - once docile and accepting - are becoming restive. Growing in numbers, and angered at society's apparent lack of concern, senior citizens from Denmark to Italy have started to demand their ''rights.''Skip to next paragraph
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''Yes, the elderly have become increasingly restless,'' says Christine Oddy of Age Concern England. Her group is one of 13 pro-elderly organizations in eight West European countries that joined together in ''Eurolink-Age'' a year ago to press for further awareness and action by governments, industry, and the general public.
The snag is that their rising demands are running smack into the austerity of the current recession. The political powers-that-be here in Europe are finding it hard to back up their words of sympathy with hard cash. The trend across Western Europe, in fact, has been to cut public spending in an effort to ease growing budget deficits.
''Governments, like everyone else, have become increasingly attuned to the problems of the elderly,'' says Christine Oddy. ''But the economic crisis has kept them from doing much.''
In addition, as the number of retirees increases, the working population has to work harder to support them. United Nations studies show that while 30 years ago 100 working people had to ''maintain'' 20 old-age pensioners and 45 children , by the year 2025 that same 100 people will have to support 40 old people and 35 children.
Proposed solutions to what is expected to become a more critical issue in the coming years are plentiful. But few so far seem very realistic.
Some recommend that elderly people be allowed to work longer in order to ease the ''pension burden'' on the young. But, analysts here say, this ignores the fact that this would make competition for already scarce jobs even tougher. Many trade unions, in fact, advocate earlier (not later) retirement as a partial cure for unemployment - now at record levels in many West European countries.
Some government ministers, notably West Germany's Labor Minister Norman Blum, have gone so far as to say that the old-young battle for jobs could become something of a ''class struggle'' in the not-too-distant future. Blum notes that the number of young people coming on the job market in West Germany in this decade alone will exceed the number of people retiring by 800,000.
Says one European Community (EC) expert, ''Social security, and particularly the cost of maintaining the elderly, could become the hottest internal problem countries will have to face in the years ahead. But solutions, for sure, will not come easy.''
Figures released at the United Nations Conference on Aging, held in Vienna last year, indicate that by the year 2000 there will be more people in the world over 65 (both numerically and in percentage terms) than ever before - nearly 600 million, or nearly double the number today, compared with only a 70 percent rise in the overall world population during the same period.
And it is in Western Europe that the increase will be the most dramatic. Today 14 percent of West Europe's population is over 65, compared with only 10 percent in the United States. In less than 20 years, the number of elderly people here will more than double. In the United States, the number will not double until 2020. In some countries like West Germany and Italy, some 20 percent of the population will be senior citizens, compared to 9 percent worldwide.
Despite this challenging outlook, most of the elderly in Western Europe have declined up to now to take what might seem to be a deteriorating situation into their own hands and act. Instead, they have preferred for the most part to leave their problems to lobbying organizations representing their interests.