Increased life expectancy brings both benefits and challenges. The fact that Europeans are living longer than ever before can be regarded as a great achievement of modern society. However, combined with lower birth rates, it means that the continent’s population is ageing. According to estimates, by 2020 approximately one in four Europeans will be 60 years of age or older. This dynamic will have significant social impacts — on the economy, the labour market, social security and health care systems.
Use the activities below to design a teaching session on the challenges of an ageing population.
Begin by asking your students to imagine a country in which the average age of the population remains constant, the retirement age is fixed (in 2015, the retirement age in European countries was between 61 and 67), and the tax revenue paid into the country’s pension fund remains more or less constant from year to year. In this simplified scenario, the government should have little difficulty in making pension payments to citizens who have retired from active employment; and people of working age can pay into the pension fund with every expectation of receiving pension benefits when they retire.
Ask them to imagine a country in which the overall population remains the same — but there is a 1 percent drop in the birth rate each year over a 10-year period, while overall life expectancy is increasing. One possibility in such a scenario is that there will be a 10 percent increase in the number of people now collecting pensions, but also a 10 percent drop in the number of tax payers, as those born within the last decade are not yet of working age.
Ask students to consider the kinds of economic and social problems that might result from this significant demographic shift. What sort of policies might be introduced to address the problem?
As people grow older, they have more difficulty getting around. Cities — especially those with ageing populations — should provide transport infrastructure and services so that elderly citizens can remain active participants in society. Making buildings and vehicles more accessible, for example, is important, but maybe not immediately feasible. Other social initiatives, however, require only modest contributions of time and interest from concerned citizens.
How easy is it for elderly people to get around in your community? If your legs were weaker, and your eyesight and hearing poorer, what obstacles might you face? Do you have any ideas about how to make your community more inclusive and accommodating for the elderly?
Ask students to consider another angle. As people live longer, older people might be more capable of working effectively beyond a given retirement age. Might the retirement age be raised to allow more people to remain in the workforce? Or would this place an unnecessary burden on people who have already spent their lives working and paying into the pension system? Or perhaps the retirement age should be lowered, to make more room in the job market for young people. Or should the country welcome more immigrants in order to bolster the workforce?
While it’s easy to see demographic trends as the causes of certain problems, it’s also necessary to understand that they are just as often the results of particular social and economic conditions. If a population is shrinking or ageing because fewer children are being born, this could be due to any number of reasons: young people are marrying at a later age or not at all; more women are opting to pursue a career rather than having children; or the costs of raising children are simply too great (food, childcare, health care, lack of parental leave from the workplace, education etc.).
The Chinese approach to population control — the one-child policy — has generated much debate in the past decades. In the late 1970s, the Chinese Government imposed a restriction on the number of children in a family in order to limit the massive and unsustainable growth of its population. Was it an appropriate way to address the problem? Should the government control birth rates? Does it bring up any moral issues?
Divide the class into teams of no more than four or five. Ask each team to build a free-standing tower as tall as possible using spaghetti and marshmallows in five minutes. A limited supply of materials is available for each group — 50 g of spaghetti (uncooked!) and 30 g of marshmallows. The spaghetti can be broken into smaller pieces. The team with the highest tower at the end of the five minutes is the winner.
The game can be seen as a metaphor for society: the different materials have different properties and uses, and both play a vital role in the structure. Discuss what made the tallest tower strong and how this relates to the structure of society.
For detailed building tips, see: http://kats.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Spag_towers_instructions.pdf
The two case studies offer two different angles on the challenges posed by an ageing population. Ask your students whether care for an elderly relative is affecting their family life. Do they think the Living Solidarity solution would work in their city?
Japan’s ageing — and declining — population
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Supportive housing project: Living Solidarity
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Encourage students to talk to their parents or grandparents about how they were raised as children, and how they raised their own children. What are the biggest differences?
Ask your students to do some research on population trends in their own country. Their reports should answer the following questions: