Yes, Germany is ageing. First, there are more and more older people. In 1950, one in a hundred Germans was 80 or older. Today, this age group accounts for over 5 percent of the population. And by 2030, 6.2 million people in Germany will live to be over 80. Almost ten times as many as in the 1950s. Second, older people are getting even older.
In 1950, the life expectancy of those aged 60 was 16 years for men and 17 years for women. Today’s 60-year-old men can expect to live for another 21 years, and women can even expect to live 25 more years. An end to a further extension of life expectancies is (luckily!) still not in sight. In the future, the life expectancy of those over 60 will continue to increase by one year each decade.
People born today can expect to get older than 83 if they are a woman, and over 78 if they are a man. That means four more years for girls born today compared with their mothers, and more than five more years for boys compared with their fathers. Today’s newborns can expect to live twelve years longer than their grandparents who were born in the late 1950s. That is fantastic. Especially considering Germans today stay healthy longer than their ancestors did.
Medicine, behaviour, and digitisation seem to be the alchemy for an apparently eternal life. People eat healthy, do sports, spend more money on prevention and therapy. Instead of breaking their own backs carrying heavy loads or doing difficult and dangerous manual labour that damages their health, robots take care of these jobs around the clock. Thankfully, wonder pills and anti-ageing technology have established the conditions for improving the health of everyone – especially the elderly – and make it possible for more people to stay healthy into old age than ever before.
Even dangerous illnesses and serious cardiovascular diseases can be successfully treated today. And “replacement organs from Petri dishes” are promising the next medical revolution. They will make it possible to produce identical duplicates of our organs from our own stem cells. If something goes wrong with your heart or kidney, you can get a pre-manufactured replacement from the fridge and will no longer be dependent on organ donors.
As correct as it may be to talk about an ageing society, it is just as wrong to assume that this is endangering Germany’s prosperity. Because society may be getting older, but it isn’t really ageing. The elderly of tomorrow will have about as much in common with their grandparents as the telephones from the 1950s do with today’s smartphones.
Increasingly, age no longer means fragility, loneliness, immobility, or neediness. Many people stay active and efficient well into old age. They start new careers in politics and volunteer after they retire. They enrol at universities, study towards a degree, and some still want a doctorate. Some men will even have children again when they get older. Never before has a person’s birth year said so little about their behaviour, wishes, and opportunities.
While in the 1950s, those over 60 looked old, were pale, grey, and physically exhausted from hard factory labour, the physical and mental ageing process now begins much later, for many people not until they turn 80.
Germans will live longer, but they won’t need to be cared for or be bedridden longer than their ancestors. Quite the opposite: more and more people will become very old, but they will stay healthy, mobile, and capable of caring for themselves well into old age. For most retirees, the nursing home can wait until they are well over 80. In contrast to the fears of many people, individual care needs will not increase dramatically, they will only be delayed – in parallel to increasing life expectancy, i.e. by about a decade (and increasingly longer).
To put it even more clearly: the costs connected with fragility and care needs in old age will not increase because people live longer – but perhaps because more people have put aside more money for old age and because medical technology will be able to achieve all whole lot more. But that has less to do with demographic ageing than with the effect of prosperity and new technological advances.
So we do not need to focus on building more traditional nursing homes. There will not necessarily be an increased need for them. Instead, we should concentrate more on building flats that are suitable for seniors, flatshares for seniors, cross-generational homes, and assisted living facilities.
It would be foolish to complain about an ageing Germany. It is happening and nothing – including migration – can stop it; at the very most, it could be slowed down. It would therefore be smart to take advantage of the chances and opportunities provided by an ageing society as soon as possible. The general conditions for the older population should focus on the young old of the 21st century and not on an ideologically founded, historical concept of the elderly based on the lives of our grandparents who grew old much earlier in life. Then ageing will not be a blessing instead of a curse for Germany
Thomas Straubhaar is originally from Switzerland. He is a professor of economics at the University of Hamburg, director of the Europa-Kolleg Hamburg, and fellow of the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, DC. After completing his studies and holding various academic positions, e.g. in Bern, Konstanz, Basel, Freiburg i. Br., and Hamburg, Straubhaar was president of the Hamburg World Economic Archives (Hamburgisches Welt-Wirtschafts-Archiv, HWWA) from 1999 to 2014 and later head of the Hamburg World Economic Institute (Hamburgisches WeltWirtschaftsInstitut, HWWI). His work focuses on international economic relationships and demographic economics.
The downfall of civilisation has been cancelled
Demographic change awakens fears and prejudices. But Thomas Straubhaar says there’s no reason to panic: as a stable democracy and healthy economy, Germany can view this change optimistically.
“Germany is not going to be wiped out,” Straubhaar explains. “On the contrary: Germany is better equipped for the future than many pessimists fear.”