A new life-course for an aging society

The population of Europe is aging. A growing number of elderly is facing a declining share of the young. Taking Germany as an example, scientists of the Rostock Center for the Study of Demographic Change show in an article published in "Science" (Vol. 313, Edition 5782) that the total number of hours worked will be reduced soon, should the low participation of the elderly in the labor market continue. To keep the ratio of workers to non-workers and the number of hours worked per capita at current levels, work needs to be distributed more evenly over the ages of life and it needs to become more flexible. The Rostock Center is a joint research institution of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research and the University of Rostock.

Using the newly developed Rostock Index, James W. Vaupel, Executive Director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR), and Elke Loichinger show that as early as in 20 years from now, the hours worked per capita will be reduced by 8 percent, should the few young continue to work a lot and the many elderly continue to work a little. This is because the baby boom generation, today around 40 years of age, will soon constitute the older workforce. An increase in productivity could absorb the reduction in manpower and maintain the standard of living, but the distribution of work would be even more unequal than it is today: More people would not be working at all.

Demographic change and the ensuing consequences for the labor market and macroeconomic development are challenging society and politics. At the same time, they open new prospects for individuals to shape their life-course and take advantage of opportunities. Future generations may wonder about the way we concentrate learning in the first phase of life, work in the middle of life, and leisure in the later years, when our children no longer need us, Vaupel and Loichinger point out. The rigid patterns of biographies and the low employment rates at older ages are no longer sustainable in the face of demographic change. "The 20th century was a century of redistribution of income; the 21st century will be a century of redistribution of work", says James W. Vaupel.

In theory, there are a number of ways to spread the total number of hours worked more evenly over the ages of life. One option would be to increase work participation of people in their 50s, using intelligent concepts of part-time work. Currently, their participation is declining markedly compared to the under-50s. Against the background of people living longer and tending to live healthier, even the over-60s could be integrated into working life to some degree. An even and flexible distribution of work could also reduce the burden placed on people aged 35 to 50. Their work phase, intense as it is, clashes with the time they need to establish a family and rear children. If work was distributed more evenly over the ages of life, then individuals could do more in life: They could combine education, work, leisure, family, and social engagement in varying amounts and according to the requirements of each life phase. Today, however, there are large obstacles to the coexistence of these spheres of life.

In the face of demographic change, the re-distribution of work over the life-course has become an economic necessity. Social science can continue to make a valuable contribution to fathom out the conditions of and obstacles to shaping new life-courses.

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Original work:
J.W. Vaupel and E. Loichinger Redistributing Work in Aging Europe Science, Vol. 313, Edition 5782


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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