Urban challenges and resilient cities: A teachers’ guide
teaching tips
Challenge 4

Addressing the consequences of an ageing population

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.

30 minutes

Let’s talk!

Golden age


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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.).

10 minutes

Let’s talk!

Controversial solutions


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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?

15 minutes

Make it!

The spaghetti-marshmallow tower


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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.

Building tips

  • Draw plans: Make a schematic drawing of the tower you envision before you start construction. Behind every great building is a well-considered blueprint!
  • Uniform lengths: When you use custom-length pieces of spaghetti (i.e. broken pieces), make sure you use pieces of equal length when putting together sections. Otherwise the tower will soon twist and bend.
  • The power of three: Use shorter pieces of spaghetti formed into triangles to add strength to rectangular or square shapes.
  • Mind the marshmallows: The strength of a joint is dependent on how well the marshmallows grip and stick to the spaghetti pieces.
  • Buttress the bottom: The bottom of the tower is under more weight and stress than the top of the tower, so make sure the base is well girded.
For detailed building tips, see: http://kats.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Spag_towers_instructions.pdf
10 minutes

Read

A question of age


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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?

case study

Japan’s ageing — and declining — population

PDF | 832 Kb

case study

Supportive housing project: Living Solidarity

PDF | 582 Kb

Follow-up

Generation gaps


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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?

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Ask your students to do some research on population trends in their own country. Their reports should answer the following questions:

  • What is the size of the working-age population today versus the number of retired people?
  • How do these figures compare to 20 years ago?
  • How do they compare to projected figures 40 years from now — when the students are approaching retirement age?
  • Are pensions today sufficient to live on?
  • What needs to be done to ensure that today’s high-school students have an acceptable standard of living when they retire?