THE HAGUE — ANY members of the United States Congress who think they face rough treatment from the nation's retirement lobby should take a look at the Netherlands and count their blessings.
Here when the leader of the top governing coalition party followed up on earlier government cost-cutting action by endorsing a planned, four-year freeze on pensions, the elderly didn't just hoot and holler. They formed two political parties and won 7 of the parliament's 150 seats in elections May 3. And the ruling Christian Democratic Appeal Party fell from power for the first time since 1917.
``We were tired of being treated like we didn't exist,'' says one retired volunteer with the ``Union 55+'' party, which won one seat. ``Now no one can forget we're around.''
The larger of the two ``gray'' parties is the General Old People's Union, which took six seats. Some observers credited the new party's voter appeal to its leaders' recognition that they needed a serious economic program.
``We stated very clearly that the basis for a good future for the elderly and everyone else must be a healthy economy,'' says Henriette Nypels, the party's delegation leader. ``You can have all the wishes you want, but if you can't pay for them, they remain wishes.''
A longtime member of the Liberal (conservative) party, Mrs. Nypels in November quit a local city council post she held under that label after the local party platform passed ``without one word about the elderly,'' she says. The 46-year-old, who heads a delegation of freshmen parliamentarians aged 55 to 67, says demographics and economics are crossing swords over the elderly issue.
Today 13 percent of the Dutch population is over 65; by 2010 that percentage will rise to 25 percent. At the same time a smaller proportion of the population is working to support the inactive - because of the gray boom, but also because of job losses, easy disability conditions, and other factors. ``Every month we're losing 18,000 jobs,'' says Nypels, ``which can't continue if we are to pay for the care our people want.''
Employers' costs must be cut so that hiring becomes more attractive, she says, adding that a place to start is better control of who gets unemployment and disability payments.
But that solution, which basically digs in someone else's backyard, leaves untouched the issues surrounding the cost for society of a graying population.
``Our supporters told us they wanted us in there so the others don't forget our older people,'' Nypels says. With the Dutch facing continuing debates on pensions, treatment of the terminally ill, and euthanasia - legislation approved in April opens the door to judicial authorization of that practice - it's unlikely the elderly will be overlooked.