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.''

''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.

''No, we haven't seen anything here quite like the Gray Panther movement in the US, nothing on that scale,'' says Karen Fogg, of the European Community's social affairs department. She adds, however, that that could change in the near future as the numbers grow and the recession continues to force governments to reassess their commitment to the elderly. She says that public pressure on the EC, which spends very little on programs specifically for the elderly, has increased considerably over the past few years.

At the forefront of what some see as a newfound assertiveness among Western Europe's elderly is West Germany's Senior Citizens' Protection League - better known as the Gray Panthers. This group stages noisy demonstrations and publishes a range of literature aimed at focusing attention on the problems of the old.

Based in Wuppertal, near Dusseldorf, the Panthers have set up regional offices throughout West Germany and have caused ''an unholy rumpus in what is surely a good cause,'' according to a recent West German newspaper report.

Among the Panthers' more explosive proposals are that over-65s should receive a minimum pension of 1,250 marks (about $520) a month, paid for by a 5 percent levy on wage-earners' income. The government has responded by increasing the contributions paid by pensioners to the national health insurance plan from zero several years ago to a maximum 5 percent beginning in July and by decreasing the automatic pension hikes.

Suggesting something of the coming seriousness of the issue is a study conducted recently in Stockholm showing that - as in many countries in Western Europe - the number of people in Sweden aged 80 to 90 will double over the next 20 years. It will be virtually impossible for their children to support them, adds the study, because they too will be over 65 and considered ''too old'' to work.

Life is likely to be particularly hard for elderly women, according to Vera Squarcialupi, a member of the European Parliament and the author of a major report on the problems of the aged in the EC.

''Women on average,'' Squarcialupi points out, ''form approximately half of the population everywhere except where the average age is increasing, and there they tend to be in the majority.'' (In Western Europe today, there are proportionately 100 men over 65 compared with 154 women.)

''Widowhood makes life very hard for women,'' her report says, ''because when they lose their husbands they very often lose their essential economic support and also the role of wife, which they have hitherto fulfilled.'' (Of the 100 million old people in Western Europe in the year 2000, two-thirds are expected to be widows and spinsters.)

Whether male or female, however, the elderly in Western Europe will become increasingly aggressive in demanding fair treatment by society in the coming years, according to most observers.

In Christine Oddy's words, ''The senior citizens of today grew up in the '20s and '30s. They're used to a low standard of living, their expectations are not that great. But that will change when their children - who grew up in prosperous times - themselves grow old. I'm certain of that.''

Meanwhile, organizations like West Germany's Gray Panthers are beginning to press their demands with increasing determination. And governments remain hesitant to, and often incapable of, committing additional funds to solve the problems of the elderly - be they isolation, inadequate housing, cultural deprivation, rising health costs, or transportation.

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